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.

America’s shopping malls struggle to avoid becoming dinosaurs.

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America’s department store chains – and anchor stores at countless shopping malls across the country – are reporting another rounds of disappointing sales and profit figures following the 2016 holiday season.

It underscores what we’ve been seeing all over the country – dead or dying malls.

In fact, retail industry analyst Jan Rogers Kniffen predicts that about one-third of malls in the United States will shut their doors in the coming years.

That’s about 400 of the ~1,100 enclosed malls.

Equally startling, of the ~700 that remain, all but around 250 are expected to continue to struggle.

The problem is multi-faceted. At an estimated 48 sq. ft. of retail space for every man, woman and child in America, that’s a footprint that gotten too big.

“On an apples-to-apples basis, we have twice as much per-capita retail space than any other place in the world,” Kniffen says, adding that the United States is “the most over-stored” country anywhere.

The oversupply of retail space is challenged by changing customer tastes, too. Online shopping is a huge problem for malls, as is the rising popularity of off-price stores in lieu of the department stores like Macy’s and Penneys that have served as important anchors for mall properties all over the country.

Now we hear reports that Macy’s is planning to close numerous store locations during 2017, joining Sears and Penneys which have been doing the same thing over the past several years.

How will malls survive in the future? Recently, the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm issued a report that highlighted five ways malls can remain relevant to consumers today and in the future:

Mall of America (Bloomington, MN): Expansion Rendering
Mall of America (Bloomington, MN): Expansion Rendering

Entertainment – Even in the age of “interactive everything,” consumers – particularly younger ones – continue to seek out gathering places and “experiences.”  It’s one reason why some shopping malls have had to deal with large numbers of young people flooding their spaces – not always with pleasant results.  Malls seeking out tenants that provide entertainment hubs — such as theme parks and gaming parlors, edutainment, and even virtual-reality content and immersive experiences — will be able to draw customers from a wider geographic area who crave social interaction.

Food and drink – “Food is the new fashion,” some people like to say.  Successful malls are getting on that action, incorporating popular dining options along with unique ones as a way of becoming destination locations.

Retail – Still a core aspect of malls, but with new twists, such as creating retail centers that are also learning zones that bring together consumers, retailers and entertainment.  McKinsey uses the example of a sporting goods store that also includes a fitness studio, or offline showrooms for online retail players.  More reconfigurable spaces that can be used for pop-up stores, special product launches and seasonal offerings are also options with potential.

Transportation – Getting to and from mall properties with ease is growing in importance, and where some creative thinking might go a way towards making some malls more attractive than others.

Technology – The more that malls can create a “seamless chain” between online and on-site shopping, the better their chances are for staying relevant in the new retail environment.  McKinsey posits a number of initiatives, such as creating “virtu-real” formats that provide consumers with a more interactive retail experience through the use of touchscreen navigation portals, virtual fitting rooms, allowing smartphones for e-checkouts, and click-and-collect services to help blend the offline and online shopping experience.

In sum, for shopping malls it means fundamentally rethinking their role — and then adapting their strengths to those of the virtual/interactive world.

If we check back in another five years or so, we should have a pretty good idea which tactics have been successful – and which mall properties, too.

Hopefully, the shopping mall closest to your home won’t look like the one at the top of this article.

What are the short- and long-term implications of self-driving automobiles?

McKinsey’s take:  In a world where people don’t take charge of the wheel themselves … we’ll all be better off.

The Google Driverless Car
The Google Driverless Car

From Google’s fleet of driverless cars to the Mercedes-Benz Robo-Car concept, self-driving automobiles are stepping off the pages of science fiction and into real life.

But how many of us have really stopped to think about how the adoption of self-driving vehicles will change everyday life as we know it?

Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. has done so, and a recently released report predicts some pretty major changes – most of them very fine, indeed.  Here’s a sampling:

  • The number of car crashes will plummet.
  • “Drivers” will become “riders,” with more time for working, leisure and interaction with others.
  • “Dead time” in commuting will decrease, and productivity will increase as a result.
  • The ubiquity of the multi-car household will change.

And it’s not just McKinsey that is looking at self-driving cars with such optimism.

Even the normally dour and scolding National Highway Traffic Safety Administration predicts that consumer adoption of self-driving vehicles will usher in “completely new possibilities for improving highway safety, increasing environmental benefits, expanding mobility, and creating new economic opportunities for jobs and investment.”

But self-driving cars won’t overtake conventional automobiles in one fell swoop.  The McKinsey report outlines a timeline for adoption of self-driving features — and it’s pretty drawn-out.

Within the next three to five years, McKinsey anticipates that cars will self-handle highway cruising and traffic jams.

The more difficult challenges of driving in urban areas and dealing with variables like pedestrians, cyclists and so forth will be tackled over the coming 25 years.

Thus, the impact of “autonomous” technology will be limited until about 2020.  McKinsey figures that the technology will experience growing pains in the years 2020-2035 as driverless cars go more mainstream.

During this period, there will be numerous issues that will need to be resolved, with clear hub-and-spoke implications:

  • The development of comprehensive rules regarding how self-driving cars are developed, tested, approved and licensed (on an international basis)
  •  Changes in insurance practices – migrating from individual coverage to automaker policies that cover technical failures
  •  The growth of remote diagnostics and over-the-air updates
  •  The decline in importance of independent automotive repair shops
  •  The reduced need for taxi drivers and long-haul carrier jobs

The McKinsey report takes us beyond the year 2040, too, which is the point when McKinsey predicts that autonomous cars will become the primary means of transport in the United States.

The implications of this are guesstimates more than anything else, but McKinsey speculates on the following long-term effects:

Mercedes-Benz "car of the future":  Seats facing every which-way.
Mercedes-Benz “car of the future”: Seats facing every which-way.
  • Car designs will change dramatically – no more need for mirrors and pedals … and car seats will face any direction.
  • Space savings on streets, roadways and parking lots from more efficient vehicle use.
  •  Fewer cars will be needed compared to today, with one autonomous car doing the job of two conventional vehicles in the typical household. The vehicles will be more expensive but fewer of them will be needed, for net savings for consumers.

As for the economic impact, the figures are difficult to quantify as some sectors of the economy will be up and others down.  But with a projected 90% drop in car crashes, the savings in auto repair and healthcare bills alone are project to be around $180 billion.

If we accept the McKinsey report’s bottom-line findings, it seems the “brave new world” of self-driving cars can’t come soon enough.  But what are your thoughts?  Are there negative implications  or “unintended consequences” that will be part of the revolution?  Please share your perspectives here.

Condé-Nast Gets Real – and Reality Bites

Conde-Nast logoThis week, magazine publisher Condé-Nast announced the closure of four magazines, including two bridal publications plus the prestigious and well-known Gourmet Magazine title.

It’s an indignity for a publishing firm that has fallen pretty far pretty fast. For years, the company seemed by-and-large unaffected by the winds of change in the publishing industry. Even as other firms were belt-tightening and divesting themselves of low-performing magazine titles, the storied “in-your-face” Condé-Nast business style – replete with jet-setting executives and seemingly endless clothing and expense accounts – appeared to remain intact.

It didn’t hurt that parent company, Advance Publications, also owns cable TV properties that could help prop up the print publication segment of the business – at least for a time.

But with plunging ad page revenues from its luxury goods advertisers on the order of 30%+ throughout 2009, it was only a matter of time before the day of reckoning would arrive. And the sense of impending doom was only heightened when McKinsey & Co. consultants started roaming the halls, poking around the company’s headquarters like a nosy relative, asking all sorts of questions and taking notes.

And now, a few short months later, we have this announcement.

Accompanying the news of magazine closures and personnel layoffs, Condé-Nast reported that it is shifting its priorities to digital properties even while focusing on a fewer number of “core” magazine titles.

Will it be enough? One unnamed company executive was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying, “We’re going to make a go of everything else.” But I think that’s doubtful. McKinsey has recommended that nearly all of the remaining publications cut their budgets by upwards of 25%. Whether or not that happens – or whether it will be enough to save the remaining titles – is something we’ll be able to judge pretty quickly.

UPDATE (11/7/09)The New York Post is reporting that Condé-Nast has now hired Michael Sheehan, the famous crisis manager and media coach, to help the company with PR. Sheehan has coached presidential candidates from Clinton to Obama, as well as handling AIG Insurance’s PR during its financial meltdown in late 2008. Reportedly, Gina Sanders, publisher of Lucky magazine, prodded top brass to bring Sheehan in, citing deep morale problems at the company. Considering the dramatic events at the publishing house over the past year, this news is not at all surprising.