New Car Technologies and their Persistently Bullish Prospects

Let’s dip back a few years for a quick history lesson. It’s 2010, and various business prognosticators are confidently predicting that the number of electric cars sold in the United States in 2013 will be ~200,000 vehicles.

And in 2015, electric auto sales will reach ~280,000 units.

What really happened?

In 2013 total electric car sales in the United States were fewer than 97,000.  In 2015, the figure was higher – all of 119,000 units.

It’s worse than even these statistics show. The auto industry’s own expert predictions were off by miles.  In 2011, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn predicted that his company would have more than 1.5 million Renault-Nissan electric vehicles on the road.

That forecast turned out to be about 80% too high.

More recent sales forecasts for electric cars are much more realistic. As has become quite clear, many consumers aren’t particularly interested in shifting to a newer technology of automobile if they have to pay substantially more for the technology up-front – despite the promise of lower vehicle operating expenses over time.

Even more telling, a recent McKinsey survey found that of today’s electric car owners, only about half of respondents indicated that they would purchase one again. Ouch.

So, what we now have are projections that electric vehicles won’t reach 4% of the U.S. automotive market until 2023 at the earliest. That’s about a decade later than those first forecasts envisioned reaching that penetration level.

Is it all that surprising, actually? If we’re being honest, we have to acknowledge that the most lucrative markets for electric vehicles are in highly prosperous, population-dense urban areas with strict gasoline emissions standards – the very definition of a “limited market” (think San Francisco or Boston).

Thinking about the next technological advancement in this sector, the industry’s newest “bright shiny thing” is self-driving cars – also referred to as the classier-sounding “autonomous vehicle.” But it appears that this sector may be facing similar dynamics that made electric vehicles the “fizzled sizzle” they turned out to be.

Consider the challenges that autonomous vehicles face that threaten to dampen marketplace acceptance of these products – at least in the short- and medium-term:

  • The regulatory and legal ramifications of autonomous vehicles are even more daunting than those affecting electric cars. For starters, try assigning liability for car crashes.
  • Autonomous vehicles require sophisticated mapping and data analytics to operate properly. The United States is a big country. Put those two factors together and it’s easy to see what kind of a challenge it will be to get these vehicles on the road in any major way.
  • How about resistance from powerful groups that have a vested interest in the status quo? Of the ~3.5 million commercial truck drivers in the United States, I wonder how many are in favor of self-driving vehicles?

Not every new technology operates in a similar environment, and for this reason some new-fangled products don’t have such a long gestation and ramp-up period.  Take the smartphone, which took all of ten years to go from “what’s that?” to “who doesn’t own one?”

But there’s quite a difference, actually.  Smartphones were a sea change from what people typically considered a mobile phone, with oodles of added utility and capabilities that were never even part of the equation before.

By contrast, consumers know what it’s like to have a car, and even self-driving cars won’t be doing anything particularly “new.” Just doing it differently.

At this juncture, McKinsey is predicting that autonomous cars will reach ~15% of U.S. automobile sales by the year 2030.

Maybe that’s correct … maybe not. But my guess is, if McKinsey’s prediction turns out to be off, it’ll be because it was too robust.

Smartphones go mainstream with all age groups.

Today, behaviors across the board are far more “similar” than they are “different.”

Over the past few years, smartphones have clawed their way into becoming a pervasive presence among consumers in all age groups.

That’s one key takeaway message from Deloitte’s 2017 Mobile Consumer Survey covering U.S. adults.

According to the recently-released results from this year’s research, ~82% of American adults age 18 or older own a smartphone or have ready access to one. It’s a significant jump from the ~70% who reported the same thing just two years ago.

While smartphone penetration is highest among consumers age 18-44, the biggest increases in adoption are coming in older demographic categories.  To illustrate, ~67% of Deloitte survey respondents in the age 55-75 category own or have ready access to smartphones, which is big increase from the ~53% who reported so in 2015.

It represents an annual rate of around 8% for this age category.

The Deloitte research also found that three’s little if any difference in the behaviors of age groups in terms of how they interact with their smartphones. Daily smartphone usage is reported by 9 in 10 respondents regardless of the age bracket.

Similarly-consistent across all age groups is the frequency that users check their phones during any given day. For the typical consumer, it happens 47 times daily on average.  Fully 9 in 10 report looking at their phones within an hour of getting up, while 8 in 10 do the same just before going to sleep.

At other times during the day, the incidence of smartphone usage quite high in numerous circumstances, the survey research found:

  • ~92% of respondents use smartphones when out shopping
  • ~89% while watching TV
  • ~85% while talking to friends or family members
  • ~81% while eating at restaurants
  • ~78% while eating at home
  • ~54% during meetings at work

As for the “legacy” use of cellphones, a smaller percentage of respondent’s report using their smartphones for making voice calls. More than 90% use their smartphone to send and receive text messages, whereas a somewhat smaller ~86% make voice calls.

As for other smartphone activities, ~81% are sending and receiving e-mail messages via their smartphone, ~72% are accessing social networks on their smartphones at least sometimes during the week, and ~30% report making video calls via their smartphones – which is nearly double the incidence Deloitte found in its survey two years ago.

As for the respondents in the survey who use smartwatches, daily usage among the oldest age cohort is the highest of all: Three-quarters of respondents age 55-75 reported using their smartwatches daily, while daily usage for younger consumers was 60% or even a little below.  So, in this one particular category, older Americans are actually ahead of their younger counterparts in adoption and usage.

The Deloitte survey shows pretty definitively that it’s no longer very valid to segregate older and younger generations. While there may be some slight variations among younger vs. older consumers, the reality is that market behaviors are far more the same than they are different.  That’s the first time we’ve seen this dynamic playing out in the mobile communications segment.

Additional findings from the Deloitte research can be found in an executive summary available here.

Where Robots Are Getting Ready to Run the Show

The Brookings Institution has just published a fascinating map that tells us a good deal about what is happening with American manufacturing today.

Headlined “Where the Robots Are,” the map graphically illustrates that as of 2015, nearly one-third of America’s 233,000+ industrial robots are being put to use in just three states:

  • Michigan: ~12% of all industrial robots working in the United States
  • Ohio: ~9%
  • Indiana: ~8%

It isn’t surprising that these three states correlate with the historic heart of the automotive industry in America.

Not coincidentally, those same states also registered a massive lurch towards the political part of the candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential election who spoke most vociferously about the loss of American manufacturing jobs.

The Brookings map, which plots industrial robot density per 1,000 workers, shows that robots are being used throughout the country, but that the Great Lakes Region is home to the highest density of them.

Toledo, OH has the honor of being the “Top 100” metro area with the highest distribution of industrial robots: nine per 1,000 workers.  To make it to the top of the list, Toledo’s robot volume jumped from around 700 units in 2010 to nearly 2,400 in 2015, representing an average increase of nearly 30% each year.

For the record, here are the Top 10 metropolitan markets among the 100 largest, ranked in terms of their industrial robot exposure.  They’re mid-continent markets all:

  • Toledo, OH: 9.0 industrial robots per 1,000 workers
  • Detroit, MI: 8.5
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 6.3
  • Louisville, KY: 5.1
  • Nashville, TN: 4.8
  • Youngstown-Warren, OH: 4.5
  • Jackson, MS: 4.3
  • Greenville, SC: 4.2
  • Ogden, UT: 4.2
  • Knoxville, TN: 3.7

In terms of where industrial robots are very low to practically non-existent within the largest American metropolitan markets, look to the coasts:

  • Ft. Myers, FL: 0.2 industrial robots per 1,000 workers
  • Honolulu, HI: 0.2
  • Las Vegas, NV: 0.2
  • Washington, DC: 0.3
  • Jacksonville, FL: 0.4
  • Miami, FL: 0.4
  • Richmond, VA: 0.4
  • New Orleans, LA: 0.5
  • New York, NY: 0.5
  • Orlando, FL: 0.5

When one consider that the automotive industry is the biggest user of industrial robots – the International Federation of Robotics estimates that the industry accounts for nearly 40% of all industrial robots in use worldwide – it’s obvious how the Midwest region could end up being the epicenter of robotic manufacturing activity in the United States.

It should come as no surprise, either, that investments in robots are continuing to grow. The Boston Consulting Group has concluded that a robot typically costs only about one-third as much to “employ” as a human worker who is doing the same job tasks.

In another decade or so, the cost disparity will likely be much greater.

On the other hand, two MIT economists maintain that the impact of industrial robots on the volume of available jobs isn’t nearly as dire as many people might think. According to Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo:

“Indicators of automation (non-robot IT investment) are positively correlated or neutral with regard to employment. So even if robots displace some jobs in a given commuting zone, other automation (which presumably dwarfs robot automation in the scale of investment) creates many more jobs.”

What do you think? Are Messrs. Acemoglu and Restrepo on point here – or are they off by miles?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

“I’m just so busy!” becomes the new social status signal.

In an era of almost constant “disruption” both socially and politically, it’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of people who devote their energies to thinking about the “larger implications.”

Author and MarComm über-thought leader Gord Hotchkiss is one of those individuals whose writings about the intersection of technology and human behavior are invariably interesting and thought-provoking.

His latest theory is no exception.

In a recent column published in MediaPost, Hotchkiss posits that the social status hierarchy of people may be moving away from “conspicuous consumption” and more towards the notion of “time” as the status symbol.

Hotchkiss writes:

“‘More stuff’ has been how we’ve determined social status for hundreds of years. In sociology, it’s called conspicuous consumption — a term coined by sociologist Thorstein Veblen.  It’s a signaling strategy that evolved in humans over our recorded history. 

 The more stuff we had — and the less we had to do to get that stuff — the more status we had. Just over 100 years ago, Veblen called those who significantly fulfilled these criteria the Leisure Class.”

Gord Hotchkiss

Looking at how social dynamics and social status are playing out today — at least in North America — Hotchkiss paints picture that is quite different from before:

“A recent study seems to indicate that we now associate ‘busy-ness’ with status. Here, it’s time, not stuff, that is the scarce commodity.  Social status signaling is more apt to involve complaining about how we never go on a vacation than about our ‘summer on the continent.'”

Interestingly, the very same research methodology that uncovered this set of attitudes in the United States was conducted in Italy as well. And there, the findings were exactly the opposite.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that in Italy, every employee is entitled to at least 32 days of PTO per year, whereas in the United States the minimum number of legally required paid holidays is … zero.

Looked at from another perspective, perhaps today’s social status indicators in North America are merely the Protestant Work Ethic in action, but updated to the 21st century.

Either way, the residents of Italy probably see it as a heck of a way to live …

What’s up with personal assistant apps?

Apple Siri loses a chunk of users, but it still possesses the biggest share of the AI-powered personal assistant apps market.

With the entry of new personal assistant apps, it’s only logical that there would be a shift in market share between the established players and the upstarts.

That trend is underscored in statistics recently published by Verto Analytics which are based on behavioral data gleaned from ~20,000 U.S. consumers via passive metering of their digital devices.

According to Verto, the current share of usage among the seven top personal assistant apps breaks down as follows:

  • Apple Siri: 41MM monthly U.S. users (~44%)
  • Samsung S Voice: 23MM (~25%)
  • Google Text-To-Search: 20MM (~21%)
  • Google Home: 5MM (~5%)
  • Amazon Alexa: 3MM (~3%)
  • Google Allo: 1MM (~1%)
  • Microsoft Cortana: 1MM (~1%)

These stats show the degree to which the top three apps continue to dominate the U.S. market. However, they don’t tell the entire story.  A more interesting trend is what’s happening with the number of monthly users by app. In the case of Siri, its monthly user figure has dropped a full 15% in the past year – or about 7 million monthly users lower than in 2016.

Samsung, #2 on the list, also experienced a decline in monthly users – in its case a drop of 8%, or about 2 million fewer users compared to 2016.

Google Home also experienced a slide in subscribers, although #3 ranged Google Text-To-Search did grow.

The biggest growth trends in personal assistant apps were experienced by Alexa (up ~325%) and Cortana (up ~350%). Both apps were starting from a very low baseline, however, and today they still number only around 3 million and 1 million monthly users respectively.

Another interesting dynamic is the level of engagement each of these personal assistant apps generates. As it turns out, there is a direct correlation between overall user growth and levels of engagement, so it’s pretty clear where most of the “go-go” action is at the moment:  Alexa and Cortana.

Perhaps most significantly, the Verto report suggests that personal assistant apps are of more utility to users than search apps such as Google or Yelp. Approximately 45% of smartphones owned by U.S. adults contained a personal assistant app that was used at least once during the month of May 2017.  Compare that to the percent of smartphones that had a search app installed over the same period:  just 34%.

It goes to show that among personal assistant apps broadly, the market is quite robust even if it’s fragmenting rather than consolidating.

The great, disappearing retail store act.

What’s in store for retail? Maybe not much at all …

There have been quite a few news reports about store closings since the beginning of this year — many of them focused on big brands like Kmart, JCPenney and Abercrombie & Fitch.

But what about the retail industry as a whole?

Recently, GetApp conducted research among a more general group of U.S. retailers that run online retail operations as well as a physical stores.

Among this group of respondents, two out of three believe that they could be closing their physical stores within the coming decade and operating their business solely online:

  • Extremely likely to be running my business solely online by 2027: ~23%
  • Likely: ~43%
  • Not sure: ~17%
  • Unlikely: ~12%
  • Extremely unlikely: ~4%

If these figures turn out to be even somewhat accurate, the “retail apocalypse” some news organizations are talking about will have become even more of a reality than even the most hyperventilating journalists are predicting.

It certainly lends additional credibility to current narrative about the downward slide of shopping malls across the United States …

The U.S. Postal Services unveils its Informed Delivery notification service – about two decades too late.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Postal Service decided to get into the business of e-mail. But the effort is seemingly a day late and a dollar short.

Here’s how the scheme works: Via sending an e-mail with scanned images, the USPS will notify a customer of the postal mail that will be delivered that day.

It’s called Informed Delivery, and it’s being offered as a free service.

Exactly what is this intended to accomplish?

It isn’t as if receiving an e-mail notification of postal mail that’s going to be delivered within hours is particularly valuable.  If the information were that time-sensitive, why not receive the actual original item via e-mail to begin with?  That would have saved the sender 49 cents on the front end as well.

So the notion that this service would somehow stem the tide of mass migration to e-mail communications seems pretty far-fetched.

And here’s another thing: The USPS is offering the service free of charge – so it isn’t even going to reap any monetary income to recoup the cost of running the program.

That doesn’t seem to make very good business sense for an organization that’s already flooded with red ink.

Actually, I can think of one constituency that might benefit from Informed Delivery – rural residents who aren’t on regular delivery routes and who must travel a distance to pick up their mail at a post office. For those customers, I can see how they might choose to forgo a trip to town if the day’s mail isn’t anything to write home about — if you’ll pardon the expression.

But what portion of the population is made up of people like that? I’m not sure, but it’s likely far fewer than 5%.

And because the USPS is a quasi-governmental entity, it’s compelled to offer the same services to everyone.  So even the notion of offering Informed Delivery as “niche product” to just certain people isn’t relevant.

I guess the USPS deserves fair dues just for trying to come up with new ways to be relevant in the changing communications world. But it’s very difficult to come up with anything worthwhile when the entire foundation of the USPS’s mission has so been eroded over the past generation.