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How media and industry are turning away from the future of the car

Today it has become almost common-place for car manufacturers to describe themselves as mobility providers — the idea of car brands framing themselves as manufacturers of large, sophisticated products is now seen as a bit twentieth century. Meanwhile, and paradoxically, car media is more enthralled than ever to the-thrill-of-driving on the limit, and celebrating the fastest and most expressive sports cars. Industry turns away from being the makers of things central to the most emotive tangible customer experience, whilst media faces the other way to fixate on the extreme driving element of this experience. Yet, in the middle of this, between these two divergent perspectives, is the future of the car — not driving a supercar fast or booking a ride, but exploring a vast realm of engaging passenger experiences that deliver way beyond any train, bus, or plane…

Top Gear and Road & Track magazine covers .jpgOver the last two decades, the centre of gravity of automotive media has skewed from lengthy print articles to moving image and shorter written pieces — and on a related trajectory away from consumer information to entertainment orientated on (the now huge number of) properly fast cars and on the driving experience they can deliver in extremis. Once the bastions of car media would describe how it felt to travel in the rear of the car across continents, how subtle changes in tyre pressures would affect the ride (maybe this was just LJK Setright…), and how groups of day-to-day cars compared in great detail. Rarely would they consider a Porsche yet alone a Ferrari, they did not assess all cars on the basis of their on-the-limit handling, and they celebrated the wider engineering design of the car and the resultant broad experience it gave them. Now, with far more high-performance cars available, media is more orientated on the fastest of cars, driving them on track and on road at their limits, and describing their value relative to the nuances of their performance in extremis. With so many cars able to realise such exciting driving experiences, and with the medium of consumption increasingly in film and short articles and associated entertaining ‘click-bait’, this shift in focus does have reason — and does entertain. But it also distances automotive media from the reality for most car users, and — and this is our core point here — with cars set to be more connected, autonomous, shared, and electrified (CASE), this media perspective is increasingly less relevant to the experience of most future car users. Fundamentally, the CASE car experience orientates away from drivers and driving and towards passengers and passengering, whilst car media is moving in the opposite direction.

MAAS.jpgMeanwhile, within the car industry there is widespread acceptance that the car will increasingly only be an element — albeit a large element — of a wider service offer and transport solution to be accessed by customers on occasion. By degrees, car companies have and are repositioning themselves as mobility as a service (MAAS) brands, and less as car manufacturers — as ‘service brands’ not ‘product brands’. With hundreds of billions of dollars being invested in start-ups and by existing cars companies in mobility, it’s easy to see why. This is the new order, this is the direction of things as customers go from a relationship with car as product to one with the car as product and service combined. But whilst the car has given up an exclusive relationship with the customer to share it with a service element, there is no reason why this product part of the customer relationship should diminish. This diminishing of the car in the customer relationship is an assumption that sits at the core of most car companies earnestly reframing their future trajectories, and it legitimises them loosing focus on what they arguably know best; how to make the amazing tangible product experience that is a car. But the tangible car part of the new combined product and service experience, has the potential to make a bigger contribution than it does today: many of the peripheral service elements could work with and elevate the central in-car experience, not dilute it or provide an alternative; the car itself might also be liberated by service elements that unshackle it from the need to be the everyman product for one household and allow it to become a more dedicated and interesting design solution for more specific usages. MAAS might enable the car to become more, not less — cars of the future, when combined with a wider service offer, have the opportunity to deliver far more emotive value to customers than today, albeit ones that are passenger, not driver, centric.  

Not all car media today is about driving supercars sideways, and some car brands are consciously delivering broader and deeper customer experiences through the tangible product itself — the new Ford Bronco is a good example of this. But, generally media is more petrol-head than ever as we realise an electrified future, just as car brands are only taking baby steps to realise more fulsome and divergent product experiences that are not focused on the driver. There remains an as yet unrealised huge white space for enriching and diverging what a car can do to create emotive, high value, tangible passenger experiences.