Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Rethinking Detroit as a Lifestyle not as a Car

Time for Detroit to Get into the Lifetime Transportation Business

Can Ford, or Detroit generally, really make a better car for Americans? I have owned my share and they all tend to break down after 4 or 5 years and they have close to zero status on the East or West coast. So why should Ford try to reinvent a wheel that foreign car companies have improved or commodotized. They can’t afford what it really takes to change our minds…..

Besides, what is more unique, Ford’s relationship to Cars or to the American consumer. They certainly have iconic value and I’d rather give them my money than some guy in a remote country, but the truth is I have come to want my engineering Japanese and my prestige German-British with a dash of Italian.

That’s more or less how our computer and technology universe works, so why not cars? Or to put it this way, is it any wonder that the person who mastered this concept is also the world’s richest man? That would be Bill Gates, who outsmarted IBM by owning the software operating system and not the computer. 20 years later, even IBM stopped owning the PC and now owns the data processing systems and support at most large enterprises.

It is a bit unrealistic to suggest that Ford start offering the Windows of automobiles and become Autosoft, but with a few conceptual refractions there might be some lessons for them.

Seth Godin, the web marketing guru once suggested that car companies stop selling cars but rather a lifetime subscription that guarantees a working car in their driveway at all times. But that is really just the beginning and perhaps a little simplistic. Seth was a Miata enthusiast at the time and may have objected to a replacement Mustang. But there are many variants that could accommodate individuality. The key to understanding this from a business perspective is, as GM once proved, financing cars was often more profitable than actually making them.

Young people probably want a lot more individuality in their car than their parents. But may not be able to afford it. Let them iTune it - buy a basic unit and download or add new components to it that make it unique. Factories may close down just as big record stores did, but modularized assembly could be done by local dealers, carshops and mechanics. Ford only has to certify these cars as roadworthy, finance them and sell a guarantee of continuity.

That could mean that Ford gets you a deal on trains and taxis if you need them. Some plans may give you use of cars only when you need them. This is the SOAS (software as a service concept rippling through the IT world) and it would mean getting into the ZipCar business, guaranteeing to their paying customers a car waiting in a garage somewhere if they need it.

My dream is they get into the schlepping-my-kids-to-after-school activity business, a logistical feat that will liberate millions of overeducated mom and pop chauffeurs everywhere.

At the end of the day, the car become less important than the car carrier, the company that lets you decide whether to switch your car every 2 years, 4 years or 6 months and change your mind again, simply by adjusting the premiums. Does your health insurance company care which doctor you choose, so long as he or she is on a list. Do you not have a car carrier, then buy an orphaned vehicle and take your chances……..

I suppose one way of describing this is to say Ford or GM should get into the personal transportation management business. They should still manufacture what makes sense, outsource what doesn’t and finance anything else that you dream of to make it all part of a seamless transportation relationship.

Over time, the world of transportation will favor them. A known, committed car owner will earn certain flying privileges that an unknown straphanger might not. Or lanes will open up on highways that enable cars with the right technology to slip into autodrive. Perhaps smart cars will not only have their GPS and phone communications with OnStar support and satellite radio but they will be routed. Lanes reserved for their travel, parking spots kept for their exact midtown ETA. Maybe kids late for class can listen in on their lectures, even miss them as they head for drivethrough-less banking and food order and even live transmissions of religious sermons as they drive, thanks to the Car company’s Internet Broadcast Transmission Center.

As cars get smarter it will become more about their software, their smarts and their relationship to the transport universe than it will about the specifics of their plastic and steel. The more US auto companies profit from the intangibles, the more likely they are to survive.

Alan Brody is a technology marketing author and head of the national Digital Media Forum for Entrepreneurs, iBreakfast.com

© 2006 Alan Brody

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