Transformations 2025: How Volkswagen prepares for the (driverless?) future

Echoing a growing sentiment in the auto industry, Volkswagen’s CEO Matthias Mueller warned last week of “a rapid and hard transformation” coming to the auto industry. He presented Volkswagen’s strategy “Transform 2025+” to cope with these changes. It includes major job cuts to prepare for the transition and many new initiatives.

But his strategy also shows how difficult it is to change the direction of the tanker which all major auto makers have become. Experience accumulated in the last 100 years, shared convictions and values make it difficult to adjust the focus and prepare for fundamental changes coming the industry. Many trends are currently competing for attention: electrification, mobility services, connected vehicles, digital platforms and finally the shift towards autonomous vehicles. It does not come as a surprise, that Volkswagen wants to become a leader in most of these topics:

It plans to establish an additional (thirteenth) major brand around mobility services. It wants to become a leader in electric vehicles. It has just established a digital lab to develop cutting-edge digital services related to mobility, connectivity, its brands and its products.

But the strategy fails to consider the tectonic shift which may be caused by autonomous vehicles and the way that self-driving car technology will affect the key aspects of the auto business. Mueller plans to lay the foundation for autonomous driving in the years from 2020 to 2025 and then have the necessary business models in place around self-driving cars after 2025. Given the rapid progress of the field, he may not have that much time.

But more importantly, self-driving car technology is associated with a very specific danger (and opportunity): It changes the dynamics of each of the auto industry’s strategic topics. Mobility services based on self-driving car fleets differ fundamentally from Uber’s, Car2Go’s and other mobility services fleets on parameters such as total cost per mile, optimal car model and characteristics, volume, utilization, profitability,  etc. Similarly electrification differs greatly whether it is targeted towards autonomous vehicles (which will initially predominantly be rolled out as elements of urban self-driving car fleets) or towards the consumer. The economic justification, battery cost, vehicle range, charging infrastructure requirements, innovation diffusion path and cost-effectiveness differ fundamentally!

A little bit of everything is not the right approach. Volkswagen, like most other auto makers, suffers from the problem hat it tries to address each and every strategic topic on its own without considering the relationships and interdependence with a paradigm-changing technology. Then, when autonomous vehicle technology enters the market they will find that the original assumptions no longer hold and that very little time remains to catch up and refocus the many different aspects of their business.

It is good that the auto industry is increasing their efforts to think about a radically different future. But they extrapolate forward from today to the next 5, 10, 15 years, and their thinking remains mostly rooted in the classic automobile world with a focus on volume leadership, consumer cars as primary product, traditional branding approaches, etc. However, in the face of transformational change, a different mode of analysis is needed: First the more distant future needs to be conceptualized, a future where autonomous vehicle technology has already matured, the current doubts and questions about viability, legality and acceptance have been overcome, self-driving vehicles are in the market and where laws and regulations have been updated (as we know they will) to allow productive use of the technology. The key aspects of this future need to be considered: Mobility service markets (separately for urban and non-urban regions, for local and long distance traffic), consumer segmentation and purchase decisions, impact on road infrastructure, impact on traffic flow (which will be enormous both for urban and for long-distance roads) and fleet management algorithms, truck, bus and autonomous machine markets. For such a future key changes (including the various types of mobility service business models) need to be calculated through in detail, using quantitative models. This analysis must be unencumbered by the current “realities” of the auto market. It must include the scenarios, business models and market dynamics that may entice investors to pour funds into promising opportunities.

After such an analysis, the focus can be turned back from the future to the present and the transition period. Many likely changes will become obvious and the paths and the relationships between the different technologies being considered today will be much clearer. For Volkswagen and all other auto makers it means allocating major resources to autonomous vehicle technology today: make sure that they catch up with the leaders in the space; prepare mobility services for  the autonomous fleet scenario rather than as also-run next to all the players already established in this field and make sure that they have electric vehicle models that can be used as backbone of self-driving car fleets.  Develop, consider and prioritize business models beyond consumer cars and fleet vehicles/mobility services, for trucks, buses, autonomous machines and beyond. Each of these activities is future-proof and establishes a beachhead  in the transition towards autonomous vehicles.

This is not a call to put all eggs into one basket. But auto makers need to take the fundamental changes that will be caused by self-driving car technology seriously and prepare to adapt to these new challenges today by making them a cornerstone of their strategy.