Is the Model T Coming Back?

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Ford’s recent announcement that it will effectively exit the passenger sedan market suggests a deeper shift in the ways we will get around in the future.

“May car sales are flat. The sedan heads toward irrelevance,” declared a headline in the Los Angeles Times almost a year ago. It hasn’t gotten bettersince: In addition to Ford’s announcement, Chrysler is nixing models, and GM is cutting jobs & investments in sedans.

Overall car sales have trended down over the past few years, while SUVs have increased their share of the mix. This happens like clockwork every time gas prices go down, which fools people into thinking they can afford to operate gas-hungry light trucks. Manufacturers are usually boneheaded, too, and focus on marketing SUVs because they’re priced higher than sedans (and have fatter profit margins).

Once prices go up, the market swings back again to smaller vehicles…only this next time, America’s Big Three won’t have any to sell.

My guess is that the onset of autonomous driving will break the cycle. Just like Henry Ford’s Model T disrupted transportation in the early 1900s, vehicles that drive themselves will change things in the 2020s.

And, just like the Model T, those vehicles will be identical, and there’ll be less of them.

The what-if designs of self-driving vehicles all look like boxes on wheels. Toyota’s ePalette and VW’s Sedric are devoid of any exterior differentiation, as is a concept from design firm Rinspeed. Another designer imagines a transparent box.

Concepts from Waymo portray a car that looks like a Beetle only stripped of any personality. Mercedes Benz chooses to focus on interiors, with a layoutthat looks like a living room setting.

Many of them could be electric, as electric car sales skyrocketed last year, and some forecasts see car sales disconnecting from fuel oil prices by the middle of the next decade.

And many, if not most of them won’t be bought by people looking to make some symbolic expression of their inner selves via branded car models; rather, they’ll hail rides via an app on a smartphone. Uber, Lyft, Ford’s Chariot, and a lot of other players are vying to operate such services.

Like airliners buying thrust instead of engines, or consumers renting space in the cloud instead of buying hard drives, travelers will buy transportation from Point A to Point B.

It won’t matter if they do it sitting in identical boxes driven by robots.

Ford was onto something in 1909 when he said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” His innovation was to bring a technology to consumers that replaced horses with something faster, cheaper, went farther, and did so more comfortably and reliably.

That changed when GM came up with the “good, better, best” pricing strategy, and unleashed a century of marketing that successfully used minor tweaks and tricks to convince consumers they were buying symbolic brands instead of the utility of transport.

People will still want customized experiences, of course, and a smart box on wheels might given it via software, kind of like a rentable smartphone that fills with your personalized apps the moment it recognizes your face.

We’ll still want brands to have mean something, only we’ll chose our ride service providers based on how they source their equipment, respect the environment, and treat their people and communities.

Next year’s model will be judged by realization of purpose, not the shape of a front grille or headlight.

A dwindling number of consumers will insist on buying cars as a personal statement, only it’s possible that an act of such conspicuous consumption might be seen as politically incorrect. The rich may always choose to one-up one another, but the brands they buy (and their sense of accomplishment) rely on the rest of us aspiring to be like them.

That pitch and pricing strategy disintegrates when we no longer care.

Where do SUVs fit into this future? They don’t, any more than sedans, really. I think the strategy right now is for automakers to milk them for as much profit as they can, for as long as they can.

Where do Ford and the other car manufactuers fit? Damn good question. Maybe they figure out how to make money producing boxes, or inventing novel ways to get around (ranging from big public transportation solutions, for which most of the planet is absolutely starved, to micro-solutions like e-bicycles…not to mention disrupting transportation entirely with something like teleportation, or whatever).

Or maybe they are to the future of transportation what oil companies are to the future of energy.

Because someday soon, we may find ourselves choosing to travel in self-driving vehicles shaped in a variety of ways, as long as they’re all boxes.