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Steve Jobs, the iCar, Barack Obama, and John Doerr

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 12, 2008

How do we fix companies like GM that have failed to innovate and are dying?  We can’t really afford to let them die, there are too many jobs at stake and it will take to long to replace them starting from scratch. 

Fred Wilson says the answer is to break them up in conjunction with the bailout, not to consolidate them into ever larger and more vulnerable entities that still don’t have a clue.  That’s a better answer, but it still doesn’t resonate.  Car companies need a fair amount of scale, and it isn’t clear there is much to break up in terms of the individual badges.  Buicks and Chevys share so much that there may not really be such a thing as a Buick.  It’s just a Chevy with some lipstick.  In fact, that may be one of the biggest problems right there.

I really got excited when I read Tom Steinert-Threlkeld’s article, “Steve Jobs for President of GM.”  He suggests it would take Jobs no more than a year to perfect his iCar, and that it would set the world on fire.  I don’t know if it would only take a year, and I doubt Jobs would want the job of President of GM, but it did get me to thinking.

There is a model for the kind of relationship Jobs, Apple, and GM need to have.  It’s the model that married Mercedes Benz and Swatch together to create the Smart.

Model for the GM+Apple iCar?
The Smart: Model for the GM+Apple iCar?
What would an iCar be like?  There are a few assumptions we can draw from.  First, the User Experience from the design, to the materials, to the feel, to the operation would be both innovative and exquisite.  The Smart is certainly innovative, but it is playful in the Swatchy way that I don’t see Jobs doing.  He’s quite serious about his designs.  They are sublime, no doubt about it, but they are not really playful.
Second, the iCar would be transformative.  It would not be Just Another Car any more than the iPhone is Just Another Phone.  Jobs would look at some aspect of the Car Experience and redefine it in a newer better way.
Let’s try to drill down with more detail.  I won’t go to far on the design side other than to say the iCar would be minimalist and modern, and that it would make innovative use of materials.  Carbon Fiber, milled aluminum ala the Brick, unique combiinations of plastics and glass are all possible.  Partially because the design and materials will be innovative, the iCar will not be cheap.  Jobs’ creations never are.  But they will be must haves and they won’t be Ferrari-expensive.  Think more Lexus.  All those rich folks that bought Priuses so they could drive in the carpool lane will be buying iCars.
Speaking of which, it seems to me that the iCar will have to be a hybrid of some kind.  It’s possible it could license Mercedes Blue Diesel technology, but the propulsion will be something unique relative to what GM builds today.
Now what about transforming the Car Experience?  I don’t envision anything too crazy here.  It isn’t necessary that we have a drive-by-wire system that involves holding our iPhone and reading its accelerometers rather than turning our steering wheel.  However, the iPhone and many of its concepts should play into it.  I can see Jobs wanting to transform the electronics side of the car.  It’s entertainment systems, and it’s systems for communicating with the driver. 
In terms of communicating with the driver, we’ve got a dashboard.  I’d look for a big touch panel on the console that does most of the work and very few mechanical controls.  Vintage iPod and iPhone.  I’d look for beautiful readouts, and perhaps a new heads up display that integrates navigation (e.g. maps) with the instantaneous status of the car (e.g. speed).  Clever bits would abound like integrating the gas gauge with the maps so that when the low gas light goes on the cheapest gas nearby lights up on the map at the same time.
The entertainment system is where things really get interesting.  Of course the iPhone will have a drop in slot and the car will seamlessly mind meld so that you can do handsfree calling with voice activation very easily.  But it’ll go way beyond that.  For example, imagine a handsfree version of Google Reader, only tied up in the proprietary yet friendly way that Apple is so good at.  Subscribe to RSS feeds and have them read to you by your iCar as you commute.  Connect to online radio stations delivered by iTunes.  Access all of your mobile music off your iPhone for play, and at the same time, listen to stations where you can make an instant iTunes purchase of anything you like, while driving, and handsfree.
Video should be available for the non-drivers.  In fact, I could see each seat having an iPhone socket so everyone can drop in their iPhone, connect via Bluetooth headset just to their device, and even all listen to their own music, hear their own podcasts, and otherwise go about using the entertainments system independently and in a personalized way.  I would expect the iPhones to also be dockable via WiFi, so that you can use the car’s flip-down LCD screens to see a game and you iPhone as the handheld game controller.
Of course Jobs can bring the AT&T relationship along and deliver 3G and WiFi connectivity to the cars wherever they may be via the AT&T network.  Probably AT&T could be persuaded to deliver other bennies to the deal as well in exchange for the even greater market advantages an iCar could bring them.
Does anyone doubt such a car could be built, or that it would sell extremely well?
Heck, let’s give GM the bailout, but insist they take on the iCar with Steve Jobs.  Let’s consider a similar Executive Mashup for other ailing industries.  If you want bailout money, you have to take on the pet project of the innovator most likely to succeed in your space.  We won’t bet your whole company and recovery on it, but we will bet that it helps a lot.
Getting back to my title, I would think a meeting of Barack Obama, John Doerr (because hey, maybe it takes more than just Jobs and Doerr has the right connection for the Green parts of the iCar), Steve Jobs, and the CEO of GM ought to be able to get this done.
When can I buy my iCar?
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Seth Godin says the answer is for the government to facilitate the structured bankruptcies of the big makers and then to invest in making it easy for small car companies to get started.  I like this idea.  There are a lot of industries where government has made it awfully hard to innovate.  Consider SOX, which radically raised the bar for tech companies to go public.  Is was supposed to prevent Enron-like financial disasters.  Does anyone really believe it has helped when you look around you at today’s finanical disasters?

8 Responses to “Steve Jobs, the iCar, Barack Obama, and John Doerr”

  1. kepesben said

    Bob – I’m thinking that you’ve drunk of the kool-aid and it was spiked.

    GM et al aren’t faltering because their cars are lacking some widget, need iPhone integration or should have slightly curvier windows. They’re faltering because the entire auto industry is flawed. That’s a business issue rather than a design issue.

    Sure you can saw that upon Jobs’ return to Apple he rebuilt the company – but again that was principally a design job.


  2. smoothspan said

    But Ben, apparently the entire auto industry isn’t flawed. Toyota flourishes. Is it just that GM can’t run their business as efficiently as Toyota? No again. The bean counters have been running it for ages.

    The problem is GM is not building cars that people want to buy. That is an innovation and design problem not soluble my however many Harvard MBA’s you choose to throw at it. We may quibble over whether the integration I describe is innovative enough, but I think it is pretty equivalent to the differences between the current iPhone and other phones. Experiece needs to be transformed, but not completely retargeted to something that didn’t exist at all. This is what Jobs excels at as you’ve said. And it is no accident that Apple lost its way when the business guys (John Sculley invented the color TV? yeah, right) took it over for a time. The same infestation has killed GM and a lot of others.



  3. eisrael said

    Fun ideas, all around. Reminds me of the kind of things Branson does with Virgin Airlines – leveraging all the content to make the airline more enjoyable.

    Even so, I’m way more interested in the fuel issue than anything else. I’d be happy to drive a dirt simple car if it didn’t depend on oil.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Better Place. For me, they’re on the cutting edge of where the auto business is going. Full country-wide electric infrastructure, a business model the makes sense, good pilot markets in small countries…

    It’s not on their website, but I heard one of their investors describing the OS for the cars. It’s got some pretty cool stuff going on – trip planning and mapping tied in with the car’s battery level, location of charging stations, and even available parking spaces.

    Serendipitously, O’Reilly Radar just today posted Tim O’Reilly’s interview of Shai Agassi, Better Place’s founder. It’s well worth watching –

    It reminded me of the story of how Shai left SAP to found the company. Wrote it up at:


  4. jwhitling said

    I’m not sure if I have the time to delve into this but here goes …
    1. GM has made exactly what we piggy Americans have wanted all along. In the span of 8 months everyone decides : I want green”, “I want good gas mileage”, “I want hybrid”. These things take time.

    2. Toyota is hurting too. Their sales are also down 30 plus percent. And BTW, they make piggy American vehicles too, just like we’ve all clamored for for years.

    3. Yes, the car companies are hemorrhaging money .. it’s what happens when a company that ACTUALLY MAKES SOMETHING loses 30% of it’s sales. The big problem with this is that there is now no place for them to borrow more money to get thru this patch.

    4. If we do not keep a manufacturing base if this country we will be further weakened. Think about WW2 without a manufacturing base. Think about turning any product ideas to real product without a manufacturing base. Jeez, just think about the job base. Not everyone can be a doctor, lawyer, etc. And even if they could who would be left to consume all our capabilities? We need to plan a complete society, not a shell of well to dos that live off their investments.

    5. If we do bail out these companies we need some influence for it .. that will be a good thing IMO, but imagine this .. the economy continues to be tough .. gas drops to $1.50 a gallon .. now what are people going to buy? My guess is that in 9 months they will forget all about high gas prices.

  5. I disagree that the problem is product. The problem is union contracts that mean that GM and the other unionized manufacturers cannot be competitive.

    There is more health care than steel in that Hemi…

    Toyota trucks are made here in Texas, BMWs in South Carolina; are they going to share in this free money??

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