Detroit — Possibly, maybe, probably, could. Those are words automotive conference attendees are hearing a lot these days.
I heard them repeatedly when I attended the Wards Auto Interiors Conference at the end of May. But this heavy use of adverbs of probability makes sense when it comes to the enigma that is future mobility, where we have plenty of questions, ideas and concepts, yet (possibly, maybe, probably) not enough concrete answers.
Let me offer up a few examples.
Question: When will see the transition from owner-operated vehicles to a fully autonomous experience or "mobility as a service" as some industry insiders are calling it?
Possible answer: By 2030, you possibly, maybe, probably, could see the tension increasing between traditional-owned vehicles and this new mobility.
Question: Who will come out on top: the automakers, the tech giants, both?
Possible answer: Well, Waymo is in the lead, but General Motors Co. is not far behind — so, possibly, maybe, probably both?
More questions: What will the interiors and exteriors look like? What will the user experience be? How will the role of automotive suppliers evolve?
Probably the response you'll get: *scratches head* Well, we just don't know yet, but here's what we think possibly, maybe, probably could happen.
See what I mean?
For companies most affected by an evolving auto world that are trying to provide answers to those questions, they often resort to the use of some other words I hear quite often: dramatic, change, disruption, etc.
These statements below from three panelists who spoke at the May 30 event on creating the ultimate user experience inside a vehicle highlight some of the common descriptive words used when the topic of future mobility comes up:
"It's no surprise that the automobile landscape is changing dramatically and really migrating from what I would consider a hardware-centric solution to a much more software-centric solution. That's why when 2030 rolls around, 30 percent of the in-vehicle content is going to be software compared to just 10 percent that it is today," said Chris Ludwig, vice president of the Epic Experience team at Harman International Industries Ltd., a Stanford, Conn.-based manufacturer of connected car systems as well as audio and visual products.
"The future will be the judge, but I think the automotive industry is ripe for a big change, and it's going to come in the way of autonomous driving, connected vehicles and electrification. … But one thing is for sure, the cockpit is going to change and it depends on a number of different variables, and there are a number of different drivers that are really acting to make this change," said Scott Beutler, head of the interior division for North America at Continental AG, a German manufacturer of tires, brake systems and interior electronics, among other components.
"At the end of the day, the exterior design and the rolling chassis are just the guts inside your phone that you never think about. You just want it to work. The user experience is going to be 100 percent of what gets people into that car or not into that car in the future. And so, that's where it becomes really disruptive," Jeff Stout, executive director of research, technology and new mobility at Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, told me after the panel discussion.
The global automotive supplier manufactures instrument panels, door panels and floor consoles — three parts of vehicle interiors that Stout said we could (there's that word again) see less of.
"We don't necessarily think all instrument panels, door panels and floor consoles will go away, but a segment of the vehicle market moving forward will have a completely reconfigured interior that will have at least less of that," he explained.
"We would view it as all of the current suppliers of interior components," he said. "There's going to be a constriction of how [many] interior components — the stuff we make today — will be needed in the future."
That is going to create market pressure, which will drive down the price as you have more capacity than market need, Stout said, and it's going to drive some suppliers out of business.
"That's a business future that we have to comprehend and deal with," he said.
For automotive suppliers like Yanfeng to stay competitive, Stout brought up another word that could be added to the list: partnership.
"We believe we have the skills, especially through partnership," he said. "Partnership is going to be the name of the game for the next number of years because nobody has the ability by themselves to do all that's needed.
"We are going to partner with electronics companies. Electronics companies are going to partner with trim companies. And the one who can do that best while satisfying what the user needs … wins. And we want to win."
There a plenty of unknown variables in future mobility and plenty of questions suspended in the air and waiting to be grounded by a widely agreed upon answer. Sure, we've got some common words to hang on to in the meantime, but at least one thing is for certain, as Stout said: "These zany, wacky, smart surfaces, as we've deemed them — they're coming."