Car Manufacturers Are Slowly Conditioning Us For The Next Phase Of The Automobile

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Volkswagen CEO Dr. Herbert Diess and Ford President and CEO Jim Hackett | Photo: Sam VarnHagen

Changes to the automotive landscape are far deeper than they seem. The risings costs of doing business are slowly killing brand identity

Some 10 or 12 years ago, I wrote a story about the convergence of research, design and development. In my piece, I described how uniqueness and specialized products would eventually disappear as all R&D for all car manufacturers would find itself in a funnel. My vision was that of an industry with scarcely a handful of platforms, powertrains and SUV body styles. A decade later, I could not have been more wrong, and right at the same time.

Car manufacturers are scared. More precisely, have been terrified at the state of the car business for, I’m guessing, 3 or so years. Sure, the 2010s were littered with sales records, booming profits and huge investments but these big multinational companies are no fools: They knew full-well that the good times would not roll on forever. They’ve been planning and preparing for the worst for a while and now they are implementing plans for survival.

The path to the future

2020 Toyota GR Supra | Photo: Olivier Delorme

The news is all around us. Every week, four or five times a week, a given manufacturer announces a new joint or collaborative effort to develop a new technology, a new platform, a new powertrain, a new something with another builder. The reasons behind these campaigns are simple enough: to save money and resources. These steps have enabled many manufacturers to introduce new products to a hungry car market but this is only the visible result of these alliances.

What we don’t see quite yet in its entirety is that brand identity is slowly being diluted, and this applies to all brands. The most immediate example of this blurring of lines is the over-reported Toyota GR Supra and BMW Z4 jointly developed cars. Think about it.

In fact, the Japanese and German carmarkers are at the forefront of this movement. VW is offering its EV technology to everyone; BMW and Mercedes are co-developing technologies and Toyota seems open to anyone with an idea and an engine. I’m making light of this but I suspect this openness to the competition will ensure long-term prosperity. And this does not only apply to big automakers. Startup companies like Rimac, Rivian and others are finding themselves in headlines with 125-year-old car companies and not because they’re looking for a handout. It’s the opposite.

Brand identity crisis?

2020 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray | Photo: Chevrolet

There are two ways of looking at this and I’ll take General Motors as another example. They seem to be working hard on re-inventing itself all the while retaining their brand identity. The C8 Chevy Corvette is exhibit A although, right alongside the C8 is a slew of badge-engineered SUVs that have little if any hope to compete with what the world’s top automakers are working on.

On the other hand, we get cars like the Supra to play with! We get the Subaru BRZ, and soon we’ll be privy to electric Fords, a Rimac-developed Audi R8 replacement and countless other vehicles. We also had a Volkswagen Routan but, well, not all joint ventures are perfect…

The brand-identity debate is at the core of the automotive landscape. And it seems as though the “import” brands are willing to lose some of it in order to stay in business. While GM tries its hardest to “make it”, Ford and FCA seem scattered. Why? They’re trying to retain some of their DNA in the hopes that buyers, loyal buyers, still want to be part of it. Ford and FCA are opening up to the idea that answers and solutions exists elsewhere but I think they’re doing it all wrong, again. They need to relinquish their Chrysler and Ford identities and forge an American identity. I think it will happen and when it does, it’ll be another step in the killing off of diehard fanboys and fan-girls.

I believe that this is an inevitable step in the future of the automobile. The thing is that it’s not starting on the surface, it’s happening below the sheet-metal, aluminium and carbon fibre. EV technology, electrification, is having a catastrophic impact on driving as a whole. But this trend began long before the first electrified car landed on the road.

Cars are evolving and changing more than we think

 

2019 BMW 3 Series | Photo: BMW

I recall, 20 years ago, driving a 3 Series BMW, an Audi A4 and other competing cars and being able to pinpoint difference in powertrain behaviour, steering response, handling and whatnot. Over the last five years, all these cars have gained electric power steering, adaptive dampers, drive-by- and brake-by-wire technologies – All forms of analog and mechanical controls, the likes of which heavily influenced how a car behaved, are now all gone. Where there was once a stark difference between a BMW and an Audi’s steering, it’s all but gone. Same for ride quality, refinement and performance.

The cars are great, don’t get me wrong. I’m enjoying my G20 2019 BMW 330i tester at the moment but over a C-Class or even an Infiniti Q50, the once clear and present chasm in driving pleasure is not much more than a rut in the road. And for the moment, it’s enough. But as EV and ICE technologies continue to evolve, a further convergence will occur, once more blurring the lines and transforming the rut into nothing less than a minor crack in the pavement.

Only design and styling will define cars

2020 Hyundai Venue | Photo: Hyundai

And here’s where I was wrong: If everything we don’t see, including infotainment and connectivity technologies, becomes more or less identical for all, it’s design and styling that will ensure differentiation in the very near future.

Design language is not a new concept however never has establishing a clear identifiable face been more important in automotive history. Some brands, like BMW, have wisely stuck with a general theme, allowing it to grow and be etched in consumers minds. On the other hand, a company like Hyundai which is constantly attempting to reinvent its “face” will need to settle with a design strategy before long if they want to remain truly identifiable.

Sadly, the days of signature exhaust notes, and that unique rewarding connectedness we feel when we sit behind the wheel of our beloved car, or SUV, will be coming to end, at least for old coots like myself. We recall carburetors, a manual choke, no power steering, exhaust fumes, and truly driving but in time, they and we will be irrelevant.

Right now, and for the foreseeable future, appearances are what matter most. Content, depth and character are less than secondary. Car manufacturers are working on the flashy bits for those mesmerized soul-less bling and they will manage to easily capture their attentions.

I’m sad but change is good, right?

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