Differences between brands are becoming more surface level. Does anyone care?
There is a vast array of car manufacturers kicking around today, and due to the ever-broadening growth of electric cars, a number of prospective new entrants (vacuum maker Dyson, for instance) poised to enter the fray.
And yet the car business is simultaneously homogenous. Cars are ever more similar and inter-related, through direct joint-ventures between rivals or stable-mates alike, and via shared components provided by huge suppliers.
This slashes costs, which is good. After all, there’s a fundamental (often job-costing) problem facing all the world’s big OEMs: how to invest billions into developing electrified car development before they’re particularly profitable or high-volume, while having enough left over to pump out ‘conventional’ new products that actually sell at scale.
Canny manufacturers band together to co-develop or share parts, or even entire vehicle platforms and architectures, to reduce the R&D costs and pocket more of the profits. This has always occurred, on both hard components and in the realm of software, but it is part of the proverbial furniture today on a massive scale.
On one hand, there are intra-corporation programs, like Audi, Skoda and Volkswagen (all part of the Volkswagen Group) sharing platforms. Ditto Renault and Alliance partners Nissan and Mitsubishi doing the same. Or Volvo/Geely. Or dead JVs such as Daimler-Chrysler and Ford’s PAG. That much isn’t a surprise.
Likewise, the Korean manufacturers Hyundai and Kia (the former owns a big chunk of the latter) usually share among each other rather than with outside brands, down to things like steel manufacturing, to get the scale they need to be more economical.
But there are also stranger joint ventures (JVs) everywhere you look. For instance, uber-rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz are reportedly in talks to co-invest and share a new front- and all-wheel-drive platform. While any talks are in their infancy, it could mean a future 1 Series and A-Class share fundamental DNA.
Recently, Ford and Volkswagen confirmed a partnership that will see VW build a Caddy-style small van for Ford, and Ford return the favour by making the next Amarok off the Ranger platform. On this theme, Isuzu will make the architecture for the next Mazda BT-50.
Indeed, run through the top brands and they almost all have JVs. Toyota co-developed the Supra with BMW, and the BRZ with Subaru (among other programs). Ford and General motors (arch rivals like BMW/Daimler) co-developed transmissions, Fiat Chrysler has co-ops with Mitsubishi and Mazda, and Honda and GM are friendly on autonomy.
There are heaps more examples, with those listed merely mentioned to make a point. Do these sort of corporate tie-ups water down a brand’s DNA?
And beyond this, in an imminent era when EVs are spookily similar mechanically regardless of maker, brands clearly need to stand for something to stand apart from each other.
People theoretically won’t be researching cars to avoid lemons as much, so to whittle down their options they will be forming a relationship with brands that ‘speak’ to them, appeal to them, resonate with them.
But is a different skin, touchscreen software and marketing pitch between two mechanically similar offerings from rival brands going to cut the mustard? And will the economic gains outweigh companies losing their engineering soul? Is it a moot point, since they’d be broke otherwise?
Selfishly perhaps, I worry that we’re headed for a future where the only differences between cars are superficial at best, highlighted by marketers and designers rather than engineers. And of course, after-sales/servicing policies.
The field of options is wide, but the parameters are getting narrow. And the current trends are only hastening the industry down this path. I don’t really have a fix, and am not so arrogant as to assume I could out-think every OEM on the planet, but it’s worth keeping in mind for any car fan out there.
The take-away question: do the sources of drivetrains and platforms even matter to anyone anymore?