Why car brands soon won’t matter any more

Rover car badge
Rover car badge

We, as a nation, are wedded to our car brands. Even those people who think they don’t care that much about cars, those who claim that their wheels are just an A-to-B device, at some level are invested in the brands that they choose.

I remember well, chatting to one celebrity radio presenter, who swore blind that he had no interest in cars, nor what his choice of car said about him or his personality. However, when asked what car he drove, the response was: “A VW Golf. I’ve always had Golfs…”

In 10 years’ time, though, that could all be gone. Technology giant IBM is predicting a future where our focus will be far more on the services, especially the digital services, that are provided via our cars, rather than the cars themselves. It’s a scenario in which what happens on a screen is far more important than the badge on the nose, where Renault stands equal to Rolls-Royce, Mini to McLaren, perhaps even Lada to Lamborghini.

Daniel Knödler, director of global sales in IBM’s Automotive, Aerospace and Defence organisation, sets the scene: “It’s a sunny Monday morning and you’re ready to head to work. The vehicle – let’s call it ‘ACES’ (Autonomous, Connected, Electrified and Shared) – that you ordered on Sunday night arrives, so you get in. The first thing ACES does is wish you a happy birthday. Next, it plays Happy Birthday to You and shares social media greetings from family and friends through its infotainment centre.

“ACES starts driving you to your destination while alerting you to upcoming traffic issues. It suggests alternative routes and asks if you want to pick up your dry cleaning en route. It scans your health vitals and coordinates with your fitness app. It checks your house in case the TV or other appliances were left on, and downloads the audio book you listened to earlier.

Daniel Knödler of IBM
Daniel Knödler of IBM

“Does this all sound a bit far-fetched? In fact, thanks to digital technologies, these and many other vehicle capabilities and mobility services are expected to be readily available by 2030.”

What’s more, it’s the potential proliferation of those services, those on-call autonomous cars, that IBM says will make the branding of our cars almost obsolete. “We see the focus on integration with personal devices, customer experience, personalisation, as being so important to the automotive industry,” says Knödler.

According to IBM’s study, entitled Automotive 2030 – Racing Towards A Digital Future’ 48 per cent of car owners said that in a world where cars are provided as self-driving, autonomous vehicles, brands would no longer matter. Cost and convenience will be all that counts.

young woman reading a book in an autonomous car (computer manipulation) - Combosan/Alamy
young woman reading a book in an autonomous car (computer manipulation) – Combosan/Alamy

It’s a trend that the car industry has been tracking for some time. With the rise and rise of personal digital devices (smartphones to you and I) and the growing level of connectivity between them and the cars we drive, there is a sense that the experience is now more important than the engineering. What makes the black glass bricks in our hands more enticing is not the mechanical nor electronic guts behind the screen, but the software that populates and motivates that screen. That’s the theory, anyway.

The thing is, while IBM’s predictions are always to be treated with respect, there are a few get-out clauses for the car makers in all of this. For a start, even IBM thinks that premium brands will suffer less in this environment than more everyday cars. Knödler says: “I think there is no real contradiction there. We don’t predict that the ownership model regarding cars will decline rapidly, and we would see it declining very slowly for the premium brands that are differentiating themselves through both their products and their services.”

There’s succour for those brands too in the fact that among smartphone users, even those that share the common Android operating system, brands still matter – Samsung users remain loyal to Samsung, Sony to Sony and so on.

Bentley badge on old-style upright car radiator - Andrew Crowley
Bentley badge on old-style upright car radiator – Andrew Crowley

The decline of the car brands is also predicated on the full and final emergence of autonomous technology, cars that can
entirely and safely drive themselves, and there are still major question marks over that.

Rodney Brooks, a former director of the robotics and artificial intelligence laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), recently wrote about the difficulties that autonomous cars, even with decades of development, still face.

He wrote on his personal blog: “Even with an appropriate set of guiding principles, there are going to be a lot of perceptual challenges that are way beyond those that current developers have solved with deep learning networks, and perhaps a lot more automated reasoning than any AI systems have so far been expected to demonstrate.

“I suspect that to get this right we will end up wanting our cars to be as intelligent as a human, in order to handle all the edge cases appropriately.”

About | Vehicle autonomy levels
About | Vehicle autonomy levels

Even actual rocket scientists think that self-driving cars are tough to bring to the mass market. Dr Steve Chien, head of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s artificial intelligence work, told The Telegraph: “I would actually say that making a self-driving car and navigating around the streets of, say, Dublin, is quite a bit more challenging than an autonomous spacecraft.

“If we send a spacecraft to Europa, we’re going there because we know very little about it. But we’re fairly certain that it won’t have to deal with the variables of a bunch of crazy people driving about on the street, dealing with rain.”

That’s the kicker: for automotive brands to suffer, first the technology to supplant a human driver must be perfected, and there’s no guarantee that can ever, truly, be done. Nonetheless, IBM’s warning has been sounded, and Knödler says that car makers must get ready.

“Automotive companies have a decision to make,” he says. “They can seize the opportunity to reinvent their organisations through digital technology – unleashing new experiences, new focus, new ways to work and new workforce skills. Or they can continue down their current path, running down the clock and risking obsolescence.”

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Do you predict the decline of car brands? Or will the cars we drive still be as important as the digital services they offer? Tell us in the comments below