Nicolas Roope, GGGGGGGGG founder offers up some useful perspectives to the auto business on the nature of the EV transition and why this is more than just swapping out one powertrain for another. We've already seen many digital transormations now (cameras, phones, lighting, agriculture etc) so surely big auto should learn from the painful lessons of these past experiences.
Over my 18 years with digital creative agency Poke, more than one client used the phrase, "we want evolution, not revolution" when we were trying to sell them a bold strategy for developing their digital business. The problem with revolutions is you rarely have the chance to call the shots, to decide on your revolution flavour and spiciness. The revolution is happening to you. You don't really have a choice. The only real option you have now is to figure out what of your makeup is going to be relevant in the prevailing reality and what needs to be added and changed to pull off that necessary reinvention. We've seen many organisations pull this of well in digital transformation, but we've also witnessed countless casualties.
In the lighting industry, the transition to LED is describes as "digitisation." Seems a bit odd at first but then, when you consider that the shift in underlaying technology was from an inefficient, analogue technology (heating an element up to white hot, emitting lots of light and also heat) to electrically powering a diode that was far more efficient but also more controllable, flexible and configurable on top of digital control systems, animating and glowing in every colour in the rainbow. But this industry, worth over $100BN did nothing to address form factor at first. There was an assumption that to pull off a successful transition you wanted to minimise the apparent change in the products themselves, assuming consumers would resist any change. So the whole industry adopted a consensual strategy to create uniform bulbs. We (Hulger) on the other hand, a tiny product startup in Shoreditch thought otherwise. The underlying technology change should be embraced and celebrated and should be allowed to play to its' strengths. That's why we decided to make the Plumen bulb, because we knew the industry wanted to brush the disruptive changes under the carpet, while we wanted to put them centre stage. They wanted evolution, we saw an irrepressible revolution. It's now 16 years since we hung up the first prototype and proclaimed in the Time's article that covered the story "It seems strange that the design of the lightbulb, an object so synonymous with ideas, is almost entirely absent of imagination." Our 001 design changed the way the public and the industry thought about the light bulb and it sparked the revolution we knew was coming. There's now a multitude of amazing, creative, beautiful, innovative products out there that have embraced all the possibilities of the new, smart technology landscape and the efficiency, controllability and adaptability of the component building blocks of these products. Our pioneering design is in the MoMA, Cooper-Hewitt, V&A and Design Museum's permanent design collection as recognition of this.
You might wonder why I find the 'digitisation' of cars so interesting. I say 'digitisation' because when you say 'electrification' you immediately focus on the powertrain technology, i.e. the shift from burning stuff power to electric power to move the vehicle (easy mistake to make because in our minds that's the vehicles are really for). But just like with the light bulb change, the shift to digital vehicles effects myriad dimensions, not just the powertrain. When you move to electric power, delivered by electric motors, controlled precisely by digital control systems, you not only have an alternative means to push the vehicle, you also create the conditions for any digital system to interact with it in a very precise, complex, synchronous and deterministic manner. You could get autonomous driving systems to sit on top of an ICE drivetrain, but its' control would be much more limited. Also, as momentum builds in the development of vehicle to grid energy banking, that same digital integration throws up so many possibilities about how battery storage can be accessed across the whole network, something that will help to mitigate the need to draw on dirty energy generation during peak demand. This aspect will become increasingly important and something only relevant to those 'digital vehicles'.
The other reason to call this transition 'digitisation' is that the legacy organisations of incumbent ICE manufacturers fundamentally don't understand the role of interface in digital systems. If they did understand them then nearly every interface in new BEVs wouldn't be the piece of sh*t that they are (I know I've used most of them). The interface on an ICE vehicle is akin to the reigns of a chariot tethered loosely to the horses up-front. Those stallions are somewhat tame, but their wild spirits are still lurking just below the surface. The interface therefore provides the connection between the driver and the vehicle in a series of harnesses, whips and reigns and foot gestures to ask the engine kindly to follow instructions. Automakers have made this translation from the controls to the power a fine art and arguably in this art is the character, texture and experience of vehicle marques that can be experienced. Porsche's performance parts singing and Mercedes' guttural, sure, solidity whirring up front in the engine bay etc. But when you're interfacing with a digital system it's not reigns any more, it's a direct and dynamic connection; you turn the nob, the power reduces instantly, the speed reduces instantly and you can trigger an animation in the in-car ambient lighting system instantly, change the track on spotify instantly, send telematics data to fleet controllers and carbon counters instantly, all through speed-of-light instructions distributed instantaneously in a standard form that can trigger anything conceivable that can take a digital form. Tesla have led in vehicle tech but they've also shone by demonstrating how the digitised car will be as much a software play as a hardware one. Over-the-air upgrades, huge, responsive touch-screens and chargers that know it's you as you approach so you don't need to sign into some dodgy energy companies CRM to fuel up. In a digital car the interface isn't a layer spread on the top, it is as much a part of the vehicle as the wheels and engine.
Talking about electrification has allowed the industry to keep that narrow focus on the car as a product, not as a system and it's a blind spot that's going to breed black holes before long; a vortex sucking in the ones who thought the battles would be won on the forecourts, not in the cloud. And whilst Tesla makes mincemeat of incumbents, few seem to learn from the fullness of their success and how for instance the ubiquity of Tesla's charging network has been at least as important in their rise as their blistering 0-60 drag races.
But not all brands are stuck in a nasty groove, the groove at the end of the record where there's no music left, just a scratchy bit that keeps playing over and over.
All the deserved praise has maybe led to Elon's interesting behaviour of late, but Tesla aren't the only ones worthy of congratulation. Arguably starting an EV marque from scratch, without the baggage of the past is an easier challenge than trying to turn around a tanker. But when choosing the exemplar of the ultimate reinvention, it's actually going to get down to a very small group pretty fast. You will probably only need one hand to count them (unless you're a finger or two short - sorry if thats the case). In that group would be Polestar, Hyundai / Kia and Renault. But while the first three have made many steps to becoming full blooded digital cars, Renault have gone the that vital extra kilometre.
While EV enthusiasts lambast automakers for trying to ride the fading love affair with SUVs and call for more small cars (the SUV category is already full of EV entrants, while others remain largely barren) , I feel like they're forgetting one that's been around for 11 years already: The Zoe. The Renault Zoe was a quiet revolutionary. It's didn't do the BMW i3 (bold visionary but too little too late on the follow through). Instead it tried to imagine the most viable, affordable, practical small city EV for the teenies (launched in 2012). The idiosyncratic battery leasing seems weird now but this was a means to bypass the then very high battery costs (the average price of a lithium-ion battery pack for an electric vehicle (EV) has fallen by 89% from $1,100 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 2010 to $137 per kWh in 2021. This translates to a decrease of £842 per kWh to £105 per kWh.)
Renault's strategy for EV transition has engaged system thinking and is therefore far more expansive than most, leading to really interesting initiatives and products. Renault started Re-factory a few years ago to upcycle ICE vehicles to EV's, allowing access to all the control systems and components to enable a full factory refurb rather than the often hacked together solution you get from third parties. It's visionary in Renault's part and speaks to a business with their eyes on the impact prize, one that also understands that you need to break a few vicious cycles in pursuit of successful reinvention. Giving up the obsession with shiny new vehicles in shiny showrooms is a hard habit to break. But Renault know there's no EV omelet without breaking a few eggs.
There were a few years when I thought Renault might lose the fight. Often the pioneers get budged out of the way when the monsters all wake up to prevailing trends. It wasn't an easy ride when the lighting industry realised Plumen was right. And you could argue that trying to reconcile the egos of the both laggards and the progressives in Renault led to the Megan E-Tech, a vehicle brilliant on paper, very pleasing to the eye and yet so vanilla only the green rectangle on the number plate lets you know it's an EV as there's no bold gesturing to what is a clear and purposeful vision. It's worth noting that the top selling EVs in the US in 2023 (source - greencars.com) are all dedicated EV platforms. Pureplays. As EVs have now moved from early adopters to early majority consumers, status is playing a larger and larger part of attraction for consumers. Complaints of high prices for these vehicles has inadvertently gifted the category status. Everyone knows they're more expensive so they become a proxy for wealth and success and then everyone wants to wear the badge whether they're driven by environmental concerns or not. We played the same game with Plumen but we figured judging people's intentions wasn't important, what mattered was impact. The Megan E-Tech doesn't pin its' credentials to the mast. It's too polite, too eager to please both poles and thus gets stuck in the middle. But Renault have a good answer.
Despite the odd hiccup I'm very pleased to see Renault's master plan was there all along. And that the quiet moments were actually those much needed pauses for contemplating and planning even bigger, bolder plans to capture the opportunities in a dynamic marketplace. After all there might be a serious threat for brands that get caught with their pants down but there's an equally exciting chance to grab huge chunks of market share as this all shakes down (including inbound Chinese players obvs.)
The headline I've read many times for Renault's Ampere electric spin off is a means to chase Tesla's capitalisation and the investment and resources that would follow. Makes sense. But I think this is also about a way to create something purely dedicated to a future that we can all now see and also know is inevitable. To cut the ties with organisational cultures that are still neutering strategy, design and deployment. To allow a new image to form that doesn't suffer the schizophrenia of trying to reconcile opposing militant camps.
Have you noticed that Renault also have managed to not f*ck up their UX? Reviewers report good things and you hear from time to time that they've signed deals with the likes of Google that go deep on the software integration that in turn allows seamless and dynamic user interaction (remember, in the digital car the interface is the car). Good UX flows from a broader understanding of what a product is in a digital paradigm. Renault have clearly developed that understanding.
As Renault ramp up their ambitions with Ampere, I'm also thrilled to see they're also connecting the dots back to form factor and how the whole package of the digital car needs to manifest in a form, in a design, in an expression fit for the new exciting paradigm. And yes, here's the reimagined Twingo, the perfect embodiment of Renault's own rebirth as Ampere.
I saw it this morning and it gave me real joy. The future looks pretty crap most days. Today, when I saw the new Twingo there was a massive rainbow arching across sky!