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Talking About the Future

Market and technology shifts aren’t the only concerns automakers have when developing new vehicles. They also care about geopolitics, environmental issues and social interactions. And because of long product development cycles, what may happen in seven years is perhaps more important than what’s happening now.

So, three global automakers in particular—Ford, Daimler and Volvo—have “futurists” on staff, helping to keep their entire organizations focused on the long view.

Recently, i3 gathered Sheryl Connelly, global consumer trends and futuring manager, Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, MI; Aric Dromi, futurologist, Volvo Cars, Gothenburg, Sweden; and Alexander Mankowsky, futurist (future studies and ideation), Daimler AG, TK, Germany together on a videoconference to explore their roles and their visions. Here is a slightly edited portion of what they said:

autopanel-(1).JPGWhat is a “futurist,” and how far into the future do you look?

Connelly: The future is uncertain, and despite being known as a futurist, my role is not to predict the future, but to remind people that no one can predict the future. More technically my role is to help the organization learn to expect the unexpected, challenging our notions about the status quo and what might happen in terms of our strategy as things shift unexpectedly. I serve the entire organization. There are people in the company who want to know what the next 12 months look like, the next five years, 10 years, even 20 years out—and so the conversation varies according to who I’m partnering with.

Dromi: I agree with Sheryl. It’s almost impossible to predict the future. My main role is to help my company navigate whatever comes down the road. It’s basically to tell them stories about potential futures that could happen, and then work with my team and try to conceptualize futures that should happen. We have a concept treatment for 2070 but that’s where we stopped.

We are looking to five different groups: demographic; geopolitical movements; new technologies; people; and social interaction. We try to identity the reciprocal relationships between these groups to understand how they are marching forward together. The main reason for my existence is to challenge the notion of what exists is what is right and shouldn’t be changed, to push the envelope of thoughts that exists in our industry since the dawn of time. I don’t really care about how the car looks and feels today, but instead what is the place of mobility in the changing society?

Mankowsky: Future studies are creating new thoughts about the future. My role is like a catalyst. The timeframe is very simple: Every industry has its heartbeat, its rhythm. The heartbeat in the auto industry is six or seven years. My perspective is two generations—14 years ahead. It’s not about predicting, because predicting is difficult on the individual level. You can’t say I’ll win the lottery. But you can develop a sense of time and this makes a difference to trend research.

As a global company, do you focus on only one market—your home market, for instance?

Connelly: I have global responsibility, so the trends team that was created by Ford Motor Co. in early 2000 was done with a very specific agenda. We believe that there are people all over the company—irrespective of their title, their function or the geography—who have given meaningful thought in contemplation about what the future holds.

The company decided it was very important to centralize that work geographically. Because our worry was that Ford North America might have one set of trends, Ford of Europe might have a different outlook and Ford Asia Pacific could have a completely different outlook. Not only could they be inconsistent, the greater danger was that they could become incompatible.

At the very top level my goal was to create a collection of global trends that would be universally relevant around the world by all functions. The next step was to recognize that the implications can vary by region. I also never lose sight of the fact that I am an American and I’m a mid-westerner and those things will cloud my point of view. We make sure that we keep a rigorous and robust process, where we bring in other people that will challenge my point of view, so that our ideas are well vetted.

Dromi: Part of my job is to tell stories about futures that could happen, and in that perspective we definitely try to understand global trends. Urban lifestyle doesn’t just exist in Europe. Every city around the world is facing the same problems. We try to create what we call the mobility hierarchy of needs [like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs]. Emotion is one of the things that haven’t evolved with human beings. Love today is love 5,000 years ago. Hate today is hate 5,000 years ago. What are the basic animal instincts of needs that create the commonality on a global scale? But then comes the time that we need to conceptualize. We need to show [our constituents] a future that should happen, and that we never do on a global scale. That we do on a very narrow local scale. So 50 percent of the time when we are looking at global scale we are very much storytellers, but when we are looking at local scale we are story makers and we hope that the story will be catchy and will fl y and will go viral fast enough.

Mankowsky: We have our design studios and research studios all over the world: in California, Beijing, Italy and Germany. We see in the global markets similarities—we have a global way of life today. On the other hand as Mercedes-Benz, we have to bring something European. Nobody would wait for an Indian car from Mercedes-Benz. We have to design European style, European luxury, European invention, German technology. We can’t create extremely local cars.

How do the vehicles we’re driving today and the vehicles we’ll drive in the future reflect the trends you see?

Connelly: What we’re trying to understand is the car means different things to different people. The car can mean one thing based on somebody’s age, but can also mean another thing based on geography. Our challenge is to stay true to our brand but also recognize that customers have different expectations for different things. Think about consumerism or status, for lack of a better term. Consumerism 1.0 is where you rely on badges to project your status in an area. Consumerism 2.0 is where you use experiences, not badges—the things that you do, the adventures that you take, stories that you tell—as the status. Consumerism 3.0 is based on mastery. And Consumerism 4.0 is philanthropy, or things that you do to improve the world or how you leave your footprint.

In that spectrum we see that the different parts of a Ford vehicle might resonate more deeply with some customers than others. It might even be things like the materials that go into our vehicles like using blue jeans to do insulation for our doors, soy and mushrooms as foam byproducts or insulation byproducts and my favorite, that we’re working on now, is where we take the skins of tomatoes to help create new plastics.

Dromi: There is an awakening force right now— especially in my company—that understands that there are some needs for bringing current trends into cars. How do we cope with these changes with our current vehicles? How do we retrofit a vehicle? How do we start tackling interaction services around the vehicle? I have not come across a single car company that is not talking about, “Hey, we need a cloud.” It’s another problem that with too many clouds out there, it’s not a scalable solution.

There’s a concept we are working on now. It’s called ESL, empathetic system learning. It’s not about machines anymore. It’s about learning systems. You can see for instance the way Tesla cars are learning from each other. You can see this type of technology out there in Google Now with their deep learning capabilities, and even Facebook M. Again, these things are not really scalable if you look at the big picture. For the first time since we solved the big manure crisis in London and introduced the car, the automotive industry has the ability to influence society if we will just be smart.M

Mankowsky: Mobility is a collaborative interaction. Our approach is to enable an inter action between cars and people, and one way to do that is to think about what to automate and what not to automate. It’s the difference between blind trust and informed trust. If the car is sensing its environment, then you can say, “OK, the car is perfect. Trust it.” That’s bad. So, informed trust: The car should show inside what it’s sensing outside, so you can develop a familiarity with the automatic function. If there is some thing missing, and you can feel that, you can say, “OK stop this. Something’s wrong” from the inside. And from the outside, people see this moving robot and maybe interact with the machine.

You see that cities got denser and denser and public places become scarcer and scarcer. We need a kind of shared space like Hans Monderman invented in the 1990s. We will have that in the future, and therefore the cars or the moving machinery, moving artifacts, should be enabled so that people can communicate in a good way with them.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Connelly: If you ask someone over 30 years of age “what does mobile mean?” they’re going to talk about transportation. But ask someone under 30 years of age and they’re going to talk about cell phones. So companies like Ford can’t just think of ourselves as a manufacturer of cars. We want to be an enabler of mobility, and that means smart mobility and multi-modal forms of mobility— things like mass transit, bicycles and strategic partnerships. We’re at a revolutionary moment for a company that’s 100 years old, because we’re rethinking everything.

Dromi: The car is the only personal device that you can literally immerse yourself inside of. It is the only computer you can sit inside. You can’t sit inside your iPhone or laptop or iPad. One of my favorite quotes by Bill Gates is that we always overestimate the change that will happen in the next two years but we underestimate the change that will happen in 10 years. How I perceive myself inside of a mobility hardware or software experience is fundamentally going to be different in 10 years, 50 years and 70 years from now. We can only navigate that, and that’s the fun part.

Mankowsky: My impression is that we are living in a very transformative time. Automation is the driver and the car will be the messenger of this transformation, because the car is the most advanced technical, technological large object – very valuable—and the people are very emotional and connected to it. It’s a very good place now to be in the automotive industry and to participate in creation of this future.

Robert E. Calem
Robert E. Calem is a journalist covering automobiles and technology.