It’s a question that no car maker wants to answer: if the future is going to be electric and artificial intelligence will replace the driver, then what is going to separate one car maker from another? Unlike engines, all electric motors have more or less the same soul-less character, while software is likely to be commonised, just like our digital devices.
Typical answers range from having a unique user interface to brand appeal and heritage. Basically no different from choosing between a Samsung or an iPhone, both of which will at some point, likely to also put their brands on electric, driverless cars since such cars have less unique mechanical components and are easier to produce.
Nearly every announcement at any international motor show these days is about some kind of electric vehicle. The reason is purely financial. Come 2021, the European Union will start imposing fines on car companies whose average fleet-wide CO2 emissions exceed 95 g/km (actual targets determined by each company's average weight of vehicles sold). Every gram over the target will be fined 95 Euros, multiplied by the number of cars sold that year.
For many, the target is grossly unrealistic and nearly every major car maker is expected to miss the target and will have to pay billions of Euros in fines. Ford and BMW are expected to pay 2.6 billion Euros, Daimler and Hyundai nearly 3 billion Euros, 5 billion Euros for PSA Group, and a massive 9 billion Euros for Volkswagen Group.
Reducing the fines requires car makers to claim the so-called ‘super credits’ from electric cars – thus explains the rush to push out electric cars.
Over in Hiroshima, Mazda is of the opinion that this commonly held prediction of the future is overhyped. Where is the electricity going to come from and how is the power grid going to cope? Most developed countries' power grids have no more than 15 percent in reserve capacity. Even in Japan or Australia, power hungry factories are regularly asked to shutdown during peak winter/summer seasons so the power grid doesn't get crippled as every household turns on their air-conditoning.
Also, the majority of power plants are still fired by CO2 emitting fossil fuels.
Carlist.my sat down with Hidetoshi Kudo, Executive Officer in charge of R&D Administration and Product Strategy to learn about how Mazda plans to remain relevant in this era of electrification and commoditized cars.
Kudo-san pulled out a chart that showed the forecasted powertrain mix for next two decades. By 2030, over 80 percent of motor vehicles will still require some form of combustion engines, plug-in hybrids and regular hybrids included.
To be clear, Mazda isn't against electric cars. Mazda's first battery electric vehicle is slated for launch in late-2019, and a variety of hybrid models will come soon too. Where it differs from other car makers is this - while everyone is throttling down on development with combustion, Mazda is doing the exact opposite, believing that its engines – which will still form the basis of hybrids and plug-in hybrids that will dominate - will be key differentiator it needs to stand out and remain independent in the future.
The SkyActiv-X engine, a variation of the HCCI engine concept which Daimler says is not feasible (apparently Mazda didn’t read the news and continued working on it), is Mazda’s latest milestone in proving everyone wrong.
Technical solutions aside, Mazda believes the intense pressure to meet emission regulations has left everyone sidetracked, forgetting why people love cars in the first place.
Digital tools, characterless electric drivetrains and sanitizing the drivng experience has become a necessary evil in order to make cars a viable business in the future.
When cars become a shared commodity, it is reduced to a mere transportation tool, which is already happening today.
Kudo-san also spoke about how Mazda wants to be a company that is not just sustainable, but is also one that brightens people’s lives through emotional cars.
“We have become a society that’s increasingly automated, with more technology, but our stress levels are also higher and people seem to have less joy,” he said.
Humans will throw out a functional commodity the moment a cheaper and better version comes along; a driverless electric cars that you don’t buy but only pay as you use and order via an app, is one example. However humans will also always defend and preserve things that bring them meaning and joy. We continue to value handcrafted analogue watches even though digital watches are cheaper and better.
The phrase “The only cars worth making are those that are fun to drive” was first uttered by former CEO and current Chairman Masamichi Kogai, but it’s now an often repeated rallying call within Mazda.
It might sound foolish to resist the inevitable but remember Ferry Porsche, the creator of the 911’s quote: “The last car ever to be built will be a sports car.”
When Mazda says fun to drive, they are not referring to 1,000 PS or a sub-7 minute lap time on the Nurburgring. Mazda is too small of a company to be able to take on such projects plus today’s climate is not very conducive for such cars.
Instead, it wants to show regular drivers what they have been missing out – the feeling of one-ness with a car, one that triggers smile at 60 km/h as well as 120 km/h, just like a little Mazda MX-5.
“Driving the right car reinvigorates the mind and body,” adds Kudo-san.
Mazda believes that without joy, without happy drivers, the meaning of a sustainable future rings rather hollow and sad. It’s also why Jinba Ittai is such an important philosophy to Mazda.
While everyone else is talking about making the driver redundant, Mazda wants to preserve the joy of driving, and keeping that joy accessible to everyone. The last bit is important. Like many, Mazda is also developing driverless cars, but with a different objective. Rather than replacing the driver, Mazda’s forthcoming Co-Pilot semi-autonomous driving feature is meant to assist elderly drivers, and those with limited mobility, because the joy of driving should be available for everyone.
While everyone else is going digital, Mazda feels it’s necessary to pause and consider that some things are better done by humans. Digital tools should be just that, a tool, not to replace the human but to enhance a human’s creative talent.
The forthcoming Mazda models like the all-new 3, which uses Kodo Design Phase 2 is one example. The way the car’s body manipulates light and shadow can only be achieved by an expert human, because no amount of digital rendering can replicate how natural light bounces off the metal panels. So confident are they in their methods that Mazda is certain that companies who rely too much with digital tools won’t be able to copy their designs.
Mazda entered the 2000s with its Zoom Zoom tagline but 2020 and beyond is all about Sustainable Zoom Zoom, which in its essence is about humanizing Zoom Zoom even further.
Over the next few weeks, we will share more of the treasure trove of learnings that we have gained from our chats with Mr. Kudo. Watch this space for more insights.
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