7 ways in which the auto industry is transitioning

The quick transformation is compelling us to question our traditional automotive axioms



By George Kuruvilla

Published: Thu 10 Nov 2022, 9:13 PM

The car industry is in a state of flux, more so than ever before. Every norm is being questioned, revised, reinforced, or cancelled for reasons that apply well at this time. To get you involved in this conversation, we’ve jotted down a few significant examples of change.

More women in the workplace

The workplace, especially in automotive companies, has traditionally been male-centric for the past few decades. Few women sign up and even fewer are encouraged to climb that corporate ladder. But in January 2014, in a landmark decision, Mary Bara was appointed the CEO of General Motors, one of the largest automotive companies on the planet. The once co-op student who checked fender panels and hoods as part of her duties rose to hold the highest executive rank in one of Detroit’s big three in a little over three decades. She had managed to squeeze through the shoulders of boardroom buddies, mostly a succession of men, to become the first female head of an automotive company in the world. And if you thought that this is a sales job and that she’s not truly a “car guy” or “car girl”, know that she holds an electrical engineering degree from the General Motors Institute (now called Kettering University). We also have Linda Zhang who is the pioneering Chief Nameplate Engineer behind the revolutionary all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning. These are designations that were previously thought to be fit only for a man. And it’s not just both of them, we also have a swarm of talented women with a penchant for everything automotive that are making their way into the workforce.

SUVs of all flavours

These high-riding vehicles with robust underpinnings were once intended for hard labour in agricultural and exploratory landscapes. For that reason, the elitist supercar and luxury car manufacturers wouldn’t touch this segment with a 10-foot pole for the longest time. But now that SUVs are selling like hotcakes, we not only have luxury brands such as Lexus, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz heavily investing in this segment, but we also have ultra-luxury brands like Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce and Bentley producing their own SUVs. The most recent to join the fray is Ferrari with the Purosangue.

SUVs were also seen as sluggish people movers previously. But with the evolution of tyre and suspension technologies, some of them have been designed to be track weapons that can not only outrun affordable sportscars like the Miata and Civic Type R around a track but beat even exotic supercars. The seemingly portly 2023 Lamborghini Urus Performante is actually quicker around the track(s) than its V10 Gallardo supercar sibling from over a decade ago.

Aspiring luxury & affordable luxury

In recent times we have also seen a large number of manufacturers encroaching on pricier segments to test their ‘luxury branding’ agendas. Not too long ago, we had Volkswagen attempting to crossover with the Phaeton sedan. Now we also have Hyundai doing it in a much larger way, with their hugely popular sub-brand Genesis. And the reverse is also happening where luxury car automakers are entering more affordable markets, Mercedes-Benz did it with the B-class, Audi with the A1 and Aston Martin with the Cygnet.

From China cheap to China calibre

Earlier, Chinese manufacturers were mocked for producing cheap replicas of European and Japanese cars or for their hideous build quality. But the late 2010s have shown us a different story, the cars coming out of the Far Eastern nation have been surprisingly positive. Some of them have even been styled with a verve that European brands can only aspire to create. If you have any doubts, check out the UNI-T and UNI-K vehicles from Changan or the Hongqi vehicles as well. Also, if China can produce the iPhone which is arguably one of the best products of the 21st century in terms of fit and finish, clearly, they have the knowledge and technology. Perhaps all the sub-par Chinese products we’ve come across in the past may just have been an outcome of their relationships with clients which had shoestring budgets and lower quality expectations.

Collateral Cars

After much debate and government intervention, automakers are finally going ‘green’. A slew of electric and hybrid vehicles have now been introduced into the market. But we are facing two problems currently. On the pretext of building green vehicles, automakers have directed time and resources to produce a number of electric dragsters that with their superfluous outputs can crush any contemporary ICE-powered V8 and V12 sportscars in the process, instead of designing truly sustainable vehicles that are lightweight, use recycled/recyclable materials and, most importantly, affordable. But an impending price war may swing things towards the intended goal.

AI argument

Some of the 21st-century impressions left behind by insightful authors in their sci-fi novels were outright hilarious while some others were very realistic, like autonomous driving and even flying cars (which we aren’t too far away from). But with the convenience of self-driving vehicles, we may also see widespread dejection, if not depression in a generation that may have to forgo the pleasure of driving altogether i.e. if governments mandate that all vehicles be self-driving. Another question that comes up when topics of AI-controlled transportation is discussed is who fashions the base ethical frameworks embedded into these self-learning high-level algorithms. Currently, they are being dictated by a handful of people and this has to change.

Also, with the advent of drone deliveries, telediagnosis and surgery, e-learning of all sorts and surge of WFH opportunities we may not have to travel at all, leaving autonomous driving passenger vehicles redundant… which is a possibility.

Manufacturers MIA at Motorshows

And finally, serving as a pun to the title itself, i.e., “Challenging Car Conventions”, we have to address the actual relevance of much-loved car conventions or motor shows in this day and age. As we have seen, especially over the period of the pandemic, more and more manufacturers are resisting the urge to display their pieces at these shows. Premier motor shows like those held in Geneva and New York have gone from hosting large mobs to sparse groups of individuals. Manufacturers have substituted these shows for simultaneous multi-location regional launches as we have seen with the 2023 Range Rover Sport and web-based curtain raisers.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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