Car-makers must beware of innovating themselves out of business

With the rise and rise of electric and autonomous vehicles, there will be fewer ways to differentiate one car from another

That the car industry is going through a major change right now is undeniable. Buyers’ tastes are moving fast, as is legislation surrounding safety and emissions, and anyone making the wrong choices now could be faced with choices of a much harder sort in years to come.

Which is why it seems counter-intuitive that car-makers are piling into robotic, autonomous vehicle technology. Clearly, at whatever distance in time, such tech is the coming thing, but it’s also tech that takes car ownership increasingly out of the equation as ride-hailing and “shared mobility” begin to dominate.

Speaking at a recent Electronomous vehicle technology conference in Kerry, the head of Jaguar Land Rover's Shannon-based autonomous vehicle lab, John Cormican, said: "Will people in the future go into a dealership and spend €80,000 on a fabulous new Range Rover? And then spend more on taxing it, paying tolls, paying for parking, and paying for depreciation? We know they do now, we're used to it, but the next generation probably won't."

Jaguar Land Rover's plan, it seems, is to keep ahead by collaborating, and by acknowledging the mobile phone principle. With the rise and rise of electric and autonomous vehicles, there will be fewer ways to differentiate one car from another, but the hope is that – as with mobiles – while the electronic guts may be indistinguishable, there are still those who see the snob value in an Apple or Samsung over a Huawei or a Sony. The danger, of course, lies in not becoming a Nokia nor a Motorola.


Yet it seems even the biggest car-makers are acknowledging the danger. Dennis Liu, Ford's associate director of global strategy at its research and innovation centre in Palo Alto, California, said: "The development of autonomous vehicles doesn't necessarily cannibalise our existing sales. We see them existing in two streams right now, in two different offerings. But, yes, if anyone in this industry gets things wrong, or makes the wrong move, they may not be around much longer."

Research over just how much we care about our cars is muddled. Many suggest that most simply don’t care, and see motoring as an A-to-B exercise, but surely that fails to take account of the inexorable rise of premium car brands, which are purely built on snob value.

Quite how we define that value in a future where batteries and algorithms are doing the driving remains to be seen, not least by the car-makers themselves.