E-commerce entrepreneur and futurist Zack Kanter spoke about driverless vehicle trends on Tuesday, May 19, 2015 during the LCT Leadership Summit in Miami Beach, Fla. (Photo by Tim Crowley/LCT)
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — The limousine industry’s trend lab convened here in May, marking a decade and a half of tracking industry changes. The Leadership Summit is the only event for operators resembling a Renaissance Weekend, filled with think-tank worthy speakers and seminars.
While the Summit provides fodder for articles and plenty of looky-loo photos, I always treat the conference and social scene like the swag bags we stuff the day before and hand out to attendees. And this year, I brought back a freebie bundle of ideas, visions and received wisdoms. For those of you who could not make it, here is my cheat sheet to present and future business priorities:
The technology behind autonomous vehicles is a fact of life, and “facts will happen,” futurist and auto e-commerce entrepreneur Zack Kanter told attendees. “The technology doesn’t need to be perfect, just better than what we have today,” he said. For limousine companies, one of the biggest opportunities lies in eventually replacing the regional airline system, Kanter said. A door-to-door driverless automobile service could provide more comfort in less travel time with same or better safety among cities a few hundred miles apart. Who will manage and book those self-driving luxury fleets that replace regional jets? As Kanter pointed out, a driverless car world would redefine the concepts of private and public transportation, rental cars, auto ownership and leasing, and overall mobility. Some consumers would prefer to “subscribe” to a driverless vehicle network, specifying their level of service and cabin size and comforts. Others would opt to own driverless cars but hire services to maintain and manage them.
If self-driving vehicles indeed evolve to mass use, chauffeured transportation companies could convert into luxury fleet providers, offering three levels of concierges:
1) A customized, automated Siri-style voice interactive app;
2) A live “voice only” concierge connected to driverless cabins via speaker phone; or
3) An onboard chauffeur-concierge to handle luggage, answer questions, or serve as a guide.
“Chauffeur-less,” “concierge-driven” luxury fleets could mimic today’s fleet mix of sedan, SUV, and van-sized vehicles. Who would provide the driverless Sprinters of the future, suited to swaddle a small group of passengers in luxury with an onboard “flight attendant?”
“This will ultimately be a good thing for the chartered transportation market,” Kanter said. “The fewer people who own cars, the more they will need to charter cars. Who will get that business? That’s the $100 billion question. There will be a need for high-touch personal service and luxury. Not everyone will want to jump into an econo-box taxi.”
Build It, Ride It
Driverless vehicle styles and configurations, as well as makes and models, could be even more varied than cars today. Who will design, shape, manufacture, and/or outfit all the cabins on wheels? Think of the details that would comprise a customized cabin: Seats, fabrics, entertainment systems, lighting, coolers, drapes/blinds, window shapes, glass, furniture styles, and technology. When you think about it, coachbuilders and parts suppliers that embrace the autonomous shift will prosper. Self-driving vehicles would not be a one-style-fits-all universe of Brave New World-1984-ish scenarios. Individual tastes would thrive, as passengers identify with vehicle brands and styles. “You are what you drive,” a pillar of Southern California car culture, could morph into, “You are what you ride in.”
Understanding Gen Y
It’s no coincidence that discussion of driverless vehicles often happens in the same realm as analyzing the Millennial generation, born 1982-2000. Digital marketing entrepreneur and author Daniel Newman hailed them as the most cooperative and connected generation in world history based on their tech-savvy and use of social media.
“We now have singularity, where there is no demarcation from the physical and digital self,” Newman said of real life and online personas. “We live lives that are more connected now, so you need to bring that into your business, and connect older with the younger.”
The U.S. already sees declining rates of driver license registration among 16- and 17-year-olds. The young man of yesteryear who once couldn’t wait to get a driver’s license and go cruising for a social life now may prefer to go mobile by texting and visiting social media while en route to destinations. As a driver’s license looks more optional than ever, Millennials would be a natural clientele for self-driving vehicles.
The app-based technology that fuels transportation network companies such as Uber and, someday, autonomous vehicles, is based on the “Millennial-style” traits of openness and live interaction. That means the limousine industry must start by cooperating on technology to attract future customers who are communicating and conducting commerce via apps — online, all the time. Patrick Grady, CEO of San Francisco-based Deem, sounded this theme in his presentation. “I implore the industry to see itself as coopetitors and TNCs as the competitors. Either everyone joins in and jumps into the deep end and has a pool party, or you try to do it yourself and fight over pieces of a shrinking pie. More supply, more inventory, and more users equal more business and revenue. You have to embrace a network.”
A Jetsons-like driverless world, however, still deserves a big IF. It will be viable if it works beyond the sanitized laboratory of its test phase. A quote from Kanter conveyed healthy skepticism that should apply to technology solutions: “If you are too open minded, your brain might fall out.”