Here's my favorite Woody Allen moment, from “Sleeper.” It applies to car companies, too. To misquote car marketing consultant Jim Sanfilippo, we've entered a new era of "Can your car company do this?" The "this" in this case, being SpaceX docking with the International Space Station. SpaceX is Elon Musk's firm. Musk owns Tesla. So, by consumer-preception extension, Tesla makes rockets that roll and rockets that rocket. And Tesla may well be first out of the gate with a bona fide autonomous car.
Sanfilippo and I were talking about “futuristic” as a perceptual virtue. It's no joke. Honda has devoted big marketing dollars to talk about itself as a technology company, one that makes way more than just cars. They don’t make a spaceship, but they do make Honda Jet and, of course, Asimo.
How about the rival across Western Avenue? Toyota has its own robot, but no jet. But how about a flying car? Let's have some fun with that. I mean, how cool is a flying car? Who doesn’t want to be able to do this? If someone asked me if I’d rather have a flying car or world peace, I'd have to go to confession the next day.
Toyota reportedly has filed a patent application for “an aerocar including a stackable wing and methods for morphing the stackable wing.” Maybe it will be more like this than this? Hopefully not this, speaking of “Sleeper.” Or this, Chevrolet’s skydiving Spark. Which probably inspired that cars-exiting-plane scene from the Fast and Furious flick.
But seriously, folks. Traditional automakers are facing an insurgency. Google and Apple aren't playing tablet games. Google just hired on former Hyundai chief Jon Krafcik to oversee their autonomous car program. Apple's most recent car-guy hire was Jamie Carlson, a former Tesla engineer. The automaker also reportedly hired Chrysler Fiat quality-control executive Doug Betts.
That's some serious trouble as Google plans to roll them out in, like, five years. The issue for car companies is that Google, Apple, Tesla, are already ensconced in our minds as technology companies, with everything that goes along with that imprimatur. I would argue that Tesla is the only car company that compete with that identity.
Still, when Sanfilippo gave me his take on Tesla's benefiting from SpaceX, I couldn't help but think, “Whatever. Who cares. Rocket schmocket. If the cars were garbage, they could launch a rocket to mars staffed with actual Rockettes and it wouldn't change my idea of the company's cars.”
But if one started with the idea that Tesla's cars were pretty much like everyone else's, there is still a lot of brand equity — for lack of a better word — in being futuristic. And it's hard to top real, actual, space flight, with a long view toward Mars. It's hard to fake that. Like when an automaker's efforts to be futuristic have pretty much had as big an effect on the competition as does the average punch from Floyd Mayweather, because the company was trying to look space-age in the midst of an extended plummet. Like Evel Knievel trying to jump the Snake River in a rocket, but only making it half way.
There was, for example, GM's 2002 hydrogen fuel-cell drive-by wire platform called Hy-Wire, (whose predecessor was called, ironically enough, Autonomy.) I thought it was pretty cool for a concept, but the problem was that concepts only make sense when they are actually, you know, within reason, or a design that presages where the company is actually going. It was GM's program for the future and the company said it could be produced by 2010. No. The other examples should be obvious, starting with John DeLorean's cocaine-fueled back-to-the-future gambit.
I’m sure there are dozens of others. And to be fair, even SpaceX has its fails. And Musk isn’t beyond wacky suggestions, like nuking Mars’ polar caps to green up the red planet. And getting people there? That will take a lot of flying cars.