BY CHRISTOPH MEYER
ME 302C - The Future of the Automobile - Mobility Entrepreneurship is a Stanford course taught by Reilly Brennan and Stephen Zoepf in Spring 2017. This course will feature a series of guest speakers across the spectrum of the mobility industry, with Pearl, Turo, and Lyft featured among others.
In order to provide an inside view to mobility enthusiasts not enrolled in the course, I will be publishing a weekly post on the CARS blog. These posts will feature a high level summary of a brief discussion with each of the guest speakers. While the content shared in the classroom will be kept confidential and off-the-record, I will interview them for 15-20 minutes afterwards. I may probe them on topics that were covered in class but the interviewee will have the discretion as to how they answer. The goal will be to learn more about their companies as well as delve into the speakers’ views on general trends in the industry and predictions of where things are headed.
Keep your eyes out for these weekly updates - full speed ahead!
Coming from a very different background than other interviewees, JR shared unique insights during class and in our conversation. As a professional driver, he experiences the motorsport industry on a daily basis and has an intimate understanding of how it functions and how it will evolve. From our discussion, it was clear that there is a growing chasm between drivers, fans, and organizers. Technology has the potential to change the dynamic, but it will still be crucial to understand how fans and drivers engage and what they seek from the experience. JR also painted a future where machines and humans have a more symbiotic relationship. Many are skeptical of the technological shifts taking place and their ultimate repercussions. However, JR pointed out that this “revolution” stands to unlock many opportunities and benefits. Keeping an open mind and considering a different mindset will be needed to embrace the future. Finally, as we have heard from other guests, driving and car ownership are fundamentally a human experience. There are raw emotions involved and cars are often an extension of one’s personality and identity. Even though we will change the way we get around in the future, this human need and passion will endure.
Q: How do you think the changes in the industry will affect car enthusiasts?
“The initial reaction of enthusiasts is disgust. There is a backfire effect — people view vehicle autonomy as a way of others taking away control and freedom. In many ways, the car enthusiasts’ reaction is analogous to the reaction some people have toward gun violence and gun control.
In the end, it’s a very realistic outcome that we have higher level of autonomy and a high rate of adoption of autonomous vehicles. What enthusiasts don’t realize is that this will also allow them to have a much more specialized and enjoyable driving experience. If I don’t need to own an SUV anymore because mobility services provide me with that need, then I can own a much more special vehicle. This future could be really happy — but we need to overcome the sense that these changes are like Orwell’s 1984. That being said, regulation will have a major impact on people’s ability to choose mobility.”
Q: How can the car enthusiasts be brought along?
“Currently, we are not having a conversation on the whole. The conversation is very fragmented and leads to fragmented views on the transportation situation. There is little clarity around what the intended outcomes are. The conversation between car enthusiasts and the industry needs to go both ways — otherwise it’s not going to improve the situation.
We need to get to the bottom of why people are auto enthusiasts in the first place. It’s not deeply understood. These days, there are few cars that really satisfy desires. I would prefer to drive many of the older Porsches than the new ones. There is currently something lost in translation between the manufacturer and the user.”
Q: How do you see the divide between commuting and leisure driving emerging in personal mobility?
“I think a lot about managing my personal transportation. Living in Boulder, Colorado, I have to do so without ridesharing most of the time. As things evolve, I think there will be much more attention on the personal driving experience. I think the options will be more tailored and the changes in the industry will create greater differences in the types of services and options that will be available.”
Q: With all the changes in the transportation industry, how should motorsports adapt/change its format?
“I think motorsports has gotten a bit stale recently. The single biggest thing that needs to change is that sanctioning bodies need to be more open to trying new things. The motorsports industry currently operates completely contrary to a startup: it is rigid and structured. The business models are not adapted — they are mired in how things have always been done. Long term contracts hinder any change. We are never going to figure out how to make motorsports amazing when we are so stuck in our ways.
Furthermore, there is a lot of homogeneity — all the cars look the same. Obviously, there are reasons for this but it makes it a lot less interesting when regulations are so rigid. We lose all differences which could make for an exciting experience. We need to be fresh and welcome more diversity. Additionally, the cars do not showcase the raw emotion and style of the drivers. This is different from the 60s and 70s when casual observers could sense the visceral and powerful experience. We’ve lost that — the focus is now on micro-precision to improve performance.”
Q: What can the automotive industry learn from the motorsports industry?
“Unfortunately there is currently no single good place to experience the overlap of technologies. This is both industries’ fault. What would be great is to see where modern technology can be threaded into motorsports to see where people stand on certain issues and technologies. There seems to be a tradeoff between utility and passion. But motorsport is at its best when it unlocks both. We need to be working on a more diverse view of what is really going on in both industries.”
Q: How do you see other technological evolutions playing a role in motorsports going forward?
“I think VR will be incredible from a communication perspective. Currently, we aren’t able to communicate the driving experience. In spite of all the other technology we have, we aren’t conveying the experience of the car racer. I actually think AR will be even more interesting. There is more potential across many areas. I can imagine a future where every fan in the audience has an AR headset that will allow them to track stats. There is also huge commercial application with targeted ads. There will also be applications for drivers — perhaps similar to fighter pilots with mapping technology. I can also see a lot of these technologies enabling gamification. AI will come into play for simulated racing: whether it’s remotely controlled, virtual racing, or holograms. All of these technologies will really improve fan and audience engagement.
Autonomy could also have a big impact. While it may not be for Indy, it could be for separate races. I have seen the Stanford autonomous Audi and it’s incredibly fast and accurate — within only a few percentage points of my peak performance. I think autonomy will be amazing for track day enthusiasts in that it will allow them to tune how much autonomy they want and thus learn about track and performance limits. Few people think about this but this range of autonomy will provide amazing experiences. I can also envision a human and autonomous “centaur”, a combination of the two. This could be similar to Deep Blue, the chess computer. While the computer alone defeats humans, a team of humans with the computer is stronger than the computer on its own. We need to have an open mind to see where this autonomy is headed. We need to approach it with wonder, not restrictions.”
Q: What do you think is the greatest misconception about the automotive industry right now?
“I don’t think people realize how difficult the coexistence will be between autonomous and human-driven vehicles. Everyone talks about AVs making us safer. But it’s irresponsible to project this technology to immediately be safer and better in all conditions. In reality, this phase will be really challenging. The end state, in which all cars are autonomous, is actually much easier from a technological perspective than the medium term. Humans are unpredictable and the coexistence will be really difficult.
I am also convinced that AVs will eventually go faster and do things better than humans. People in motorsports don’t want to acknowledge this, but it will happen. I guarantee it.”