Who in the ACES wants that?!


Image source: McKinsey

Recently I attended an automotive industry symposium, where I discovered the acronym, ACES. It stands for Autonomous, Connected, Electric, and Shared. Industry veterans extolled the virtues of these technologies, and waxed eloquent on all the billions of dollars in investment and projects being rolled out everywhere. McKinsey recently published several insights from their research into ACES.

The industry movement towards ACES

According to the experts at McKinsey, robo-car fleets are almost ready to be rolled out, and by 2030, 25% of revenues will be coming from ACES-based business models. On the consumer side, driver-assistance systems and safety were very important factors. But only a small percentage of drivers actually use the systems after buying them. A large number of drivers wanted to be able to use smartphones in the car and considered it to be the most important aspect of using driving time productively. Car-sharing and ride-hailing were looked upon favorably in urban areas, but there is plenty of reluctance from families, and for multi-stop trips. There is no information on preferences for electric cars, but there has been a general upward growth trend in electric vehicles over the last few years.

The automotive industry, and large technology companies are of course barreling ahead with their ACES plans irrespective of consumer preferences.

The dominant logic seems to stem from the indiscriminately overused quote:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

Henry Ford

It’s all over the Internet. It’s simple and apparently contains infinite wisdom that everyone understands. The BIG problem with it is that Henry Ford never said it.

In one of my most favorite articles on innovation, Erik Flowers presents some amazing statistics of the time and goes on to deconstruct (demolish) the logic behind using that quote. The key point is that to truly innovate one needs to see beyond what is stated, or what appears to be users’ immediate “pains”, “problems”, or “needs”. Which is what a lot of companies end up doing when designing new solutions.

To paraphrase Erik, radical innovation comes about with a mindset that asks, “forget trying to solve horse related problems, what if we can eliminate these problems completely?”.

People may never know what they want, and focusing on the problems they are specifically having might take us down paths towards iterating on “good enough” instead of understanding the base emotional problem and aspiring towards innovating something that solves problems in truly great ways.

Erik Flowers

I thought about all this as I heard the executives expound on ACES and the future of mobility. My primary thought was, “what core user problem are they trying to solve?”, and “why won’t they talk about it?”. In the entire 6-hour symposium, not a single speaker touched upon their users and why ACES was a good thing for them. What is all this technology and investment meant to eliminate or introduce? Who is asking for these autonomous, electric, connected cars, and why?

  • Fleet owners and logistics companies are said to be the primary parties interested in autonomy with a view to reduce cost of human drivers. True level-4 or 5 autonomy is still a decade away.
  • Electric power trains will not be attractive unless the cost of batteries per km of range reduces dramatically by half of what it is today.
  • Does the popularity of ride-hailing and car-sharing apps indicate a fundamental shift in the attitude towards car ownership? Would they give up the independence or sense of freedom that comes from being able to drive? Currently just 1% of all vehicle miles travelled in the United States came from ride-sharing, and the growth is expected to plateau.
  • Does the interest in ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) mean that drivers would prefer to give up driving control completely? Just because drivers want to use cellphones while driving, does it mean that they would prefer to start working out of cars? Would they like to have social interactions, family time in cars?
Adoption rate of ADAS is low

Towards the end of the 19th century, horses were creating very real problems for the people with death and disease. Nobody wanted faster horses. They wanted a way to stop drowning in horse dung. An automated, fast manure removal and incineration machine would have definitely made their life easier.

Today, congestion, pollution, greenhouse emissions, accidents, unused assets (on average a car lies unused 95% of its lifetime) are all very valid concerns. But is ACES the only way to solve them? Are we building modern manure removal machines?

Maybe we could design a future that doesn’t need cars at all!

  • What if cities were designed to avoid traveling itself? Imagine self-sufficient clusters instead of the downtown-midtown-suburb-rural zoning of today.
  • What if the current road network could be utilized is entirely different ways by designating dedicated lanes for certain types of traffic?
  • What if we redesigned work itself so that daily commuting was not necessary or was dramatically reduced?
  • What if all regular shopping was automatically delivered to the house? What if the stores came to the buyer, instead of the other way round? What if virtual shopping felt as real as real shopping?
  • What if all public transportation was free?
  • What if all transportation was public transportation?

What if car ownership stopped being a symbol of prestige? What if car ownership became a source of stigma?

This is not a rant against progress. I’m as enamored by technology as the next person. But automotive OEMs and technology companies have done a rather poor job of explaining their vision of the future and their motives to the common person. It appears as if the vision does not include people buying these cars at all. And yet ACES is being hailed as the next radical innovation and an inevitable step in the evolution of humankind.