Forbes Asia, May 8, 2016
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By Bill Russo
For the early part of the 21st century, China has been the growth engine of the global automotive industry. Despite a recent slowdown, China will surpass 25 million units in annual car sales in 2016 and has become the battleground for dominance of the global auto industry.
Several driving forces, which are particularly evident China, are disrupting the status quo of the automotive industry:
- The unique context of China’s urban transportation challenge, the high rate of adoption of mobile device connectivity, combined with the rapid and aggressive introduction of alternative mobility solutions.
- Disruptive new entrants into the mobility solutions competitive landscape, who draw insights about customers based on their online behaviors and mobility habits in order to offer a diverse pool of new revenue-generating solutions.
The confluence of these forces are changing the landscape of how mobility needs can be served in a rather fundamental way, touching off a wave of experimentation among both traditional automotive and new mobility solutions providers.
The Origins of Disruption
Disruptive business models typically originate from outside the core set of industry players. Traditional Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) business models rely on selling products through an established business-to-consumer (B2C) channel, often through an intermediary sales partner that is either owned or franchised to represent the OEM brands in the marketplace. Consumers pay to own the asset outright.
The entry point for disruption is through the “pay-per-use” service-based business model. While this channel has existed for some time in the form of services managed through centralized professionally managed fleets (rental car companies, taxi and chauffeur services), digitally disruptive companies such as Uber, and China’s Yidao Yongche and Didi-Chuxing (created from a merger between rival mobility services from Alibaba and Tencent) have gained rapid and widespread market acceptance.
Once an entry point is established, these services-centric Information and Communications Technology (ICT) disruptors are able to leverage their big data and analytics capabilities to gain insight on consumers and their mobility patterns and behaviors. Essentially, these disruptors view connected mobility services as a natural extension of their ecosystem platform and are viewing the traditional services and perhaps even the OEM hardware business as a way of expanding their ecosystem. Serving the “Mobility on Demand” market is merely the point of entry for an entire suite of Internet-based mobile connectivity services which may include navigation, route planning, e-commerce, vehicle repair and maintenance, usage based insurance, and other very lucrative “owner services” which are very important to today’s OEM business.
ICT disruptors are leveraging connected mobility services as a means to disintermediate the value chain of the automotive industry and capture a profitable services ecosystem. OEMs are at risk of their business model being relegated to a high-risk, asset-intensive, commoditized, business-to-business (B2B) channel for delivering hardware to the profitable ecosystem of the mobility services providers.
Reimagining Personalized Mobility
The motivation for many ICT disruptors to invest and compete in this market is to unlock the services revenue that encircles each user. It is not the mobility service itself that justifies the investment, but rather all the things that we (and our cars) do when mobile. Making such experiences feel more and more “personalized” to our individual needs and lifestyles, which become apparent based on our mobility habits, will ensure the loyalty of the user to the service provider’s ecosystem.
ICT disruptors are leveraging their core value propositions to deliver a more personalized mobility solution. These disruptors may not see the car industry as their destination, but are rather “travelling through mobility”. They view mobility services as a channel for enrollment of users into their broader ecosystem-based platform offering a range of other services. Chinese ICT disruptors aiming at this “personalized mobility” solutions space include LeEco, Future Mobility, and NextEV.
The table below offers a glimpse of how major Chinese players aim to leverage their core while expanding to and beyond mobility as a service. Beyond manufacturing smart, connected, electric vehicles or building technology-enabled infotainment systems and mobility services, these visionary companies are reinventing the mobility experience as a whole. Moreover, they are reimagining mobility as a transaction between a user and an ecosystem services provider, which stands in stark contrast with the traditional model of a transaction between an owner and a manufacturer.
It is important to keep in mind that as cars become mobility service platforms, the technology on board will become more sophisticated and tailored to the individual end-user’s needs. ICT disruptors may in fact decide to contract out the actual production of vehicles to an ecosystem partner, with an end-game of earning recurring revenue by providing car owners with data products and Internet services. While some tech companies may profit from selling hardware, the main focus is on the services that flow through the hardware.
Disruptions typically originate from outside the traditional industry players, which is clearly illustrated in this case. We are approaching an inflection point where the deployment of personalized mobility solutions will expand exponentially and thereby alter the competitive landscape and business models of several adjacent industries.
Over the past few years we have witnessed how ICT disruptors have pioneered new business models and are in the process reimagining mobility as a service. The emergence of Chinese disruptive mobility solutions players such as Didi Chuxing and LeEco, with their innovative ecosystem-based strategic approach, offers clear evidence that something new is happening. This, coupled with the Chinese government’s determination to push new-energy vehicles and build a sustainable transportation infrastructure, demonstrates the potential for China to become the major breeding ground for automotive innovation.
Tech disruptors including Apple AAPL +0.12%, Google GOOGL +0.50%, LeEco, NextEV, and others may be garnering the most attention, but as we have observed, they are typically “travelling through mobility” as a means to enroll users into their broader service ecosystems. On the opposite flank, traditional OEMs, who will not easily cede their over 100-year dominance in the auto industry, are pivoting into mobility services.
New players will inevitably join this emerging landscape of competition. Alliances are also being formed among new and traditional players seeking to access complementary strengths and seize a competitive advantage.
The battle will likely be won by those who understand the true potential of connected mobility services and thereby deliver value to the user in the most personalized, convenient, comfortable, and cost-effective manner. It is a battle where profits will be won by offering differentiated mobility-related services through a hardware platform that is most suited to the lifestyle of its end user.
Success will accrue to those companies that are best able to reimagine mobility in the context of a place like China: where mobility needs are uniquely challenging, where innovative mobility experiments are being driven by entrepreneurial activity, and where dreams of exponential business growth become reality.
Follow me on twitter @billrusso
 China Drives the Future of Automotive Innovation, Gao Feng Viewpoint, by Bill Russo and Aloke Palsikar, October 2015
I am the Managing Director and the Automotive Practice leader at Gao Feng Advisory Company based in Shanghai. With 15 years as an automotive executive, including over 11 years of experience in China and Asia, I have had the pleasure of working with multi-national and local Chinese firms in the formulation and implementation of their global market and product strategies. I was previously the Vice President of Chrysler North East Asia, responsible for the business operations for the Greater China and South Korea markets. In addition, I have 12 years of experience in the electronics and IT industry, having worked at IBM Corporation and Harman International.
The author is a Forbes contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.