Is This the Future?

I am not like the Silicon Valley investor that celebrates disruption. Yes, I understand the role of disruption in the business arena (e.g., to advance human progress), but I dislike the hardship that will come to countless numbers of employees (and their families) that work in a displaced industry, even if new jobs are being created elsewhere. Half of the divorces in our country are due to financial hardship, and widespread job losses lead to broken families and even suicides. Top auto executives, with their high salaries, are safe on a personal level from the effects of most disruption, having the financial resources to carry them through, even if they quit their jobs tomorrow. But the vast majority of employees for these companies are highly vulnerable to the effects of disruption. So I get concerned when the process of transforming a car maker into a major new mobility company lacks effectiveness, since doing it wrong will hurt so many employees and their families.

The now-discussed massive corporate transformations are unprecedented and will be extremely difficult to achieve. Any CEO of an automotive company today has spent their entire careers developing, making, selling, financing and supporting automobiles and light trucks. That’s it. That’s what they know. They have exclusively focused on increasing automotive output their entire adult working lives. None of them have led a Zipcar, Uber or other new mobility enterprise that seeks reductions in the number of automobiles in urban areas. As a result, automotive leaders are now looking to top consulting firms to help guide their companies into this exciting—but for many leaders, frightening—future.

I was pleased to see the consulting powerhouse Deloitte recently release a study on the future of the automobile titled “The Future of Mobility.”  Deloitte generates over $10-billion in yearly consulting fees, and can access talent across the world. To someone new to the mobility space, I expect their report looked highly professional and provided a lot of food for thought. But I was surprised to learn this major big report came from someone at Deloitte with no background in transportation or mobility.

We live in a new age of transparency, so it only took me a few moments to learn the main person behind Deloitte’s mobility report, Scott Corwin, had a lot of interesting experience in business, but little to none in mobility. According to his LinkedIn profile, Mr. Corwin has experience with management consulting, acquisition integration, corporate development, strategy, business transformation and restructuring, but I noticed no relevant background in transportation. 

If you don’t know an existing industry, or even the “next” coming industry well, how do you know who to talk to for such a report? For Mr. Corwin, that seemed mainly to be talking with automotive industry experts, not the people launching Uber or other more-radical new mobility businesses. After working more than 2 decades in the emergent smart mobility space, I found Mr. Corwin had only connected with one mobility innovator I know of, Larry Burns, the former vice president of General Motors in charge of R&D, and now an autonomous car proponent.

Burns now believes the number of automotive vehicles running about in the U.S. will be reduced by 90 percent in the years ahead, with all people and goods being accommodated with only 10 percent of the vehicles than we have today. While Burns has a provocative vision, I wish he had gotten out of his secured lab more often and learned about the larger new mobility eco-system.

Fifteen years after I took my first investment to create my Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, in 2003, Larry Burns was quoted as saying, “Only 12 percent of the world’s population own an automobile today.  The forecast is for 15 percent by year 2020.  We need to find ways to accelerate that growth.” That may sound like an appropriate comment for a growing car company, but my associates working in the eco-mobility field gasp at it!  Burns is an amazing mind for sure, but should not be considered one with a comprehensive future mobility understanding.

If automakers are going to succeed at this major coming transformation, it will happen because they have engaged truly new thinkers and innovators. Asking consultants that are mainly “car people” to define the path forward will lead to unfortunate results.