Schizophrenia: (Noun) A mental disorder characterized by the failure to understand reality. Common symptoms include false beliefs, unclear or confused thinking, hearing voices that others do not, and a lack of motivation.
The daily torrent of Tesla, Waymo, Cruise Uber, Lyft and Mobileye press releases, a veritable storm of self-driving news, obviously hits automotive execs hard. The OEM strategies are all over the map, often with internal R&D overlapping (and even conflicting) with external investments and partnerships—if they have a real Autonomous Vehicle strategy at all. Mobility is whatever the marketers say it is, and so billions of dollars flow into startups, ad agencies and consultancies desperate to suck OEMs dry before the Auto 2.0 bubble pops.
When it comes to the future, car companies are totally schizophrenic. What are they thinking?
Somewhere inside every OEM there's a cool, measured mind in a big chair. Maybe more than one. And then there is everyone else. Who is winning out in the debate over how to manage brands? If Soichiro Honda
and Morgan Stanley are right and only six car companies will survive in the future, the graveyard of storied brands will be filled with those not only who fail to pick a path, but who squandered time and money diluting brand equity in an everything-to-everyone race to the bottom.
So who is winning? Let's begin with Jaguar Land Rover.
Why JLR? Because I love them. And they're English. Or at least they used to be. They're still there. They're just owned by Tata of India, which is a good thing, because if you know anything about English car companies, they never do well when owned by English people. Or Americans.
By any definition, Jaguar is a driving brand. During its dark times, it survived on the glorious fumes of the E-type, still the most beautiful unit of phallic industrial design ever made, and the Range Rover, which persisted despite Tesla levels of reliability. How about Land Rover? Not quite a driving brand, but certainly a driven brand, as in wouldn't-it-be-great-to-be-driven-in-this-thing? All those small Land Rovers exist for only one reason, to make you feel like you're in the house of Range Rover. The new Range Rover Velar is stunning, with an interior as tasteful as a Maybach's is tacky.
So what's happening at JLR? The F-Type is absolutely killer, and now they're rolling out the lovely electric I-Pace SUV, a worthy alternative to Tesla, missing only a charging network. They just announced a sale of up to 20,000 I-Paces to Waymo. That's a real coup if the goal is to migrate Jaguar into a self-driving/mobility brand, but the better Waymo does with I-Paces, the more they become glorified taxis, and with it the Jaguar brand. Is that the goal? That's the Foxconning Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche said was off the table for his portfolio. Jaguar doesn't have a sub-brand they can use for self-driving/mobility, so whatever those things mean, they're going to happen under the Jaguar banner, with a co-brand on the side.
The I-Pace is cool, but it's not as big as a Chrysler Pacifica, for which Waymo has a deal with FCA for up to 62,000 over five years. Autonomy at scale requires cheap/small vehicles, or big SUVs/minivans, neither of which Jaguar makes. Does Jaguar think Waymo customers will pay more for a smaller/premium robotaxi? Does Waymo? If not, what effect does a fleet of high-use geotonomous I-Paces have on regular I-Pace sales? Or sales of Jags in general?
No one knows, but the Jaguar brand may depend on the answer.
Maybe it's just me, but no matter how perfectly Waymo executes—and especially if they do—nothing says not luxury more than brand identification with taxi services. Maybe that can fly in Europe, but in this country? I just don't buy it. The more mobility services—and especially autonomous mobility—depend on specialized vehicles, the further away from ownership and driving these vehicles will move in the minds of prospective owners. Or perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe ownership won't matter in our glorious future, subscriptions will become a thing, and...maybe human nature will change.
But I doubt it. Does anyone in the US want to own a Buick? Or a Lincoln? Other than Navigators, the rest appear to be in fleets. Great... if you want to be Foxconn. Not great if you want to maintain your brand equity. Buick and Lincoln's brand equity? Gone, in this country.
And then there's this insane announcement from Land Rover:
Everyone knows that no one outside of the Middle East takes their Range Rovers off road. And everyone knows that the first generation of self-driving cars will only work in perfect conditions on-road. Unless you live in the suburbs of Phoenix, you won't see a Waymo for years. GM's Cruise cars? I'm not too bullish on those in SF, even in 2019.
If you can't get self-driving working everywhere, in perfect conditions, you can't make it work off-road, with its constantly shifting landscapes, conditions, and of course, animals, who are the ultimate edge case. Car makers can't even make automated parallel parking work 100% of the time.
In what universe does anyone—especially anyone at JLR—think there's demand for an autonomous off-road Land Rover? Even if there is, autonomous off-roading is the most limited and difficult use case there is. Unless JLR assumes 100% liability—which would be absolutely insane—this is the dumbest idea to come out of a major car maker in years. I haven't met a single AV engineer who believes this will be possible for a long, long time—if ever—outside of military applications, where the vehicle's potential destruction is assumed, and budgeted for.
Every cent spent on this, all the way down to the clickbait press release, is one less cent invested in things that matter. Trust me, there aren't enough customers in Dubai for an autonomous off-roading Range Rover, even if the application actually worked. When you're rich enough to throw one away, success means driving yourself—as a matter of pride—off the cliff.
Know your customer.
Pre-mapped luxury off-roading is another story, but that's not autonomous.
Will Jaguar Land Rover survive in the age of mobility? Yes. But only because they're already owned by Tata. I love JLR's current slate of vehicles, but for a brand that just a few years ago was on the brink, I'd like to see a little more focus. The good news? JLR hasn't done anything stupid, and has yet to squander a fortune the way the Germans have, which brings us to Austin, Texas, and the madness of Mercedes-Benz.
But that's another story.
Alex Roy—Editor-at-Large at The Drive, founder of the Human Driving Association, host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports and author of The Driver—has set numerous endurance driving records, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.