The sketchy liaison between Google and Ford is still up in the air, but while roaming digi-land, Ford has started dating Toyota. The Japanese, who had sent back love letters from Apple and Google unopened, are apparently ready for persuasion. But who will first strike a deal with the powerful information brokers from California and open their cockpits to Big Data? Could well be Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which is still looking for a strong shoulder to lean on.
Six months ago, FCA and Volkswagen were talking about comprehensive consolidation. Someone threw a number on the table, allegedly 30 billion Euros. While VW’s then-chairman Martin Winterkorn was interested but not yet convinced, the key shareholders feared that a merger might be a stretch too far. Then dieselgate rocked Wolfsburg, VW shares plummeted, and now the new chairman has much more pressing issues on his agenda. Though the number on the table has in the last three months reportedly almost halved, the proposed Italian job is now dealt with by deputy armchair strategists.
In Vegas during the Consumer Electronics Show, FCA showed its nicely presented but otherwise underwhelming take on digitalization. In Detroit for the auto show, where FCA boss Sergio Marchionne held court, it was business as usual with the new Chrysler Pacifica minivan being the center of attention. The nicely executed people mover may nonetheless have a hard time pulling well-to-do soccer moms from their command position SUVs.
What FCA lacks is an American luxury car division, more SUVs beyond the Jeep corral, more product substance for Chrysler and true modularity in terms of architectures and drivelines. Back in Europe, Alfa Romeo is meanwhile taking painfully long to get its act together and release at least the overdue Giulia to the public. If the new Tipo assembled in Turkey really is indicative of Fiat’s brand-shaping efforts, then market share in the central European region will go to the competition. At Maserati, everyone is waiting for the repeatedly delayed Levante SUV and for the stage II Quattroporte that gets a major facelift later this year to distance itself from the cookie-cutter Ghibli.
Where are we as far as the Apple car and the Googlemobile are concerned? Apple CEO Tim Cook is apparently determined to go ahead with his $3- to $5-billion project which will come to market in 2018. Analysts no longer believe this to be a high-volume city car. Instead, the Cupertino gang allegedly intends to offer a proper automobile that can cover long distances and is fun to drive. We’re talking about a Tesla beater here, not merely a Tesla Fighter. Key characteristics are said to include a powerful scalable e-drive matrix, a classy minimalist design, a host of new intuitive features, and eventually also fully autonomous mobility backed by the G5 Internet.
In essence, this is an iPhone on wheels. It offers a variety of total connectivity packages, piggybacks the subscription model perfected by the smartphone, and will be distributed via attractive lease deals rather than outright purchasing schemes. As part of a whole digitalized eco system, the Apple car — like the iPad or Apple TV — is a Trojan horse which gives its maker access to the client’s time, attention, loyalty, commitment, social network, and credit card account.
Unlike Apple, Google is not yet a hardware provider. There is no specific Google design, materiality, or functionality. While the Apple car is another stepping stone toward total consumer control, Google’s goal is to acquire more and more saleable data. Attempts to conquer the cockpit via Android auto have only been successful to a certain degree — up to now, no OEM has opened its head unit to Big Data.
So why not build a bespoke Google car, similar to Apple´s automobile, but with the emphasis on content, not hardware? Lacking the engineering know-how and the production infrastructure, Google apparently does not yet feel comfortable enough to go ahead with its own automotive master plan. But if there was an available partner, this partner could be commissioned to build fully autonomous made-to-measure BEVs which would be first available in large metropolitan areas, be it under Google´s own flag or in cooperation with service providers like Uber and Lyft.
Faraday Future has chosen an even more radical approach. The start-up controlled by a Chinese media mogul is building a new factory near Las Vegas with an initial capacity of 50,000 units, which is destined to grow to 500,000 vehicles by 2025 through the addition of plants in the Far East and Europe. Like the Apple car, the FF motor car is not a low-cost high-volume project. And just like Apple, FF is not primarily interested in selling cars at a profit. Fact is, even if the four-wheel side of the business breaks even, sufficient earnings would likely be generated by the follow-up business — downloads, apps, music, chats, and social media.
To out-byte competitors like BMW and Mercedes, FF is expected to offer superior connectivity rates, a wider range of electronic devices, and much faster download speeds. The first FF model to see the light late next year is said to be a stylish four-door crossover based on a new aluminum-intensive architecture — the outlines of which look remarkably like the modular zero-emission MEB components set under development at VW.