Navigant Research Blog

Autonomous Vehicles as Both a Sustaining and Disruptive Innovation

— December 9, 2016

Electric Vehicle 2While listening to a recent episode of the Exponent podcast, co-hosts Ben Thompson and James Allworth had a vibrant discussion on one of their regular topics: sustaining versus disruptive innovation. The topic was in the context of whether Apple should acquire Netflix, but as the hosts’ conversations often do, it got me thinking about the auto industry. With self-driving vehicles, transportation is on the precipice of a dramatic change that many argue will be exceptionally disruptive. I’d like to take a slightly contrarian view by arguing that autonomous technology will be sustaining to parts of the auto industry and disruptive in ways that many in the tech industry may be missing.

Sustaining vs. Disruptive

Disruption is an often abused word in the world of technology, but as defined by Harvard University’s Clayton Christensen, it boils down to innovations that create new markets and value networks and eventually displace existing market leaders. Sustaining innovations evolve existing markets and improve value.

An example of the latter is the way that manufacturing automation improved productivity and quality in the way cars are built over the past several decades. However, as in any complex analysis, these things are never simply binary. While new manufacturing technology was sustaining for automakers, it was extremely disruptive to the people that worked in their factories. Similarly, any argument that autonomous vehicles will be purely disruptive of the auto industry is a vast oversimplification. If automakers had followed the path of Nokia in the mobile phone business and ignored the threat posed by Apple when it introduced the iPhone in 2007, incumbent automakers would be facing extinction in the face of autonomy.

Instead, I would argue autonomy will instead be sustaining for many (although probably not all) automakers. Someone will need to build these vehicles regardless of whether they are piloted by computers or humans, and the companies that already have design, engineering, and manufacturing expertise are well-positioned to do so.

Just as other real-world examples are rarely black and white, there will be disruption from the autonomous vehicle. Most obviously it will affect those that make a living from driving, whether by taxi, bus, or truck—society will have to address this employment displacement in the next decade.

Retail Side

Perhaps the less anticipated and more impactful disruption is faced by the retail side of the auto industry. There are nearly 17,000 franchised car dealers in the United States currently selling about 17.5 million vehicles a year with more than 1 million employees. If transportation shifts as expected over the next several decades (i.e., from an individual ownership model to on-demand autonomous mobility services), the business of these retailers will evaporate. It won’t be overnight, but it will almost inevitably happen.

However, someone still needs to own these vehicles, right? Sure, but unlike the Silicon Valley investors that pumped Uber’s valuation to more than $60 billion, I doubt it will be standalone ride-hailing companies. I’m increasingly of the opinion that mobility services will be provided by the manufacturers themselves, leveraging their existing expertise in building, logistics, and financing along with strategic investments in the software platforms needed to connect people with rides.

Disruption by its nature takes people by surprise. The self-driving car will be both sustaining and disruptive, and probably not in the obvious ways.

 

From Grid to Cloud: A Network of Networks in Search of an Orchestrator

— October 8, 2015

In my blog, “The Impacts of the Evolving Energy Cloud,” I discussed how the power sector is undergoing a fundamental transformation. It is transitioning from a centralized hub-and-spoke grid architecture based on large centralized generation assets toward a more decentralized grid with a bigger role for renewables and distributed energy resources (DER). Navigant calls this new grid the Energy Cloud.

Where networks of networks exist, the business model that Wharton School dubbed the network orchestrator has been found to achieve faster growth, larger profit margins, and higher valuations relative to revenue, compared to three other types of business models (asset builder, service provider, and technology creator). The network orchestrator role will capture value by tailoring electricity supply and demand services for a customer, utility, or grid operator. In Navigant’s latest article in Public Utility Fortnightly, we explore how network orchestrators will emerge from the developing Energy Cloud and who might be candidates for such a role.

The New Uber

This week, in an interview with Energy Post, RWE’s Head of Innovation Inken Braunschmidt talked about the different business models that RWE is pursuing to capture an important position in the future energy system in Europe. She states, “In that energy system, it’s much more about sharing … you go onto a platform and say: I have electricity left over from wind or today I want to order some electricity from wind. It will be like ordering Uber.” This is a good example of how a large utility wants to transform its business and build a network orchestrator business model on top of its traditional business models. Many utilities have recently started new businesses, evaluating and making the initial investment in network orchestrator roles in areas like virtual power plants, building energy management systems, microgrids, storage, and others.

Another example this week was General Electric’s (GE’s) announcement of Current, powered by GE, an energy company that integrates GE’s LED, Solar, Energy Storage, and Electric Vehicle businesses to identify and deliver cost-effective, efficient energy solutions to its customers. This is clearly a move to become more of an orchestrator. The new company combines GE’s products and services in energy efficiency, solar, storage, and onsite power with its digital and analytical capabilities to provide customers—hospitals, universities, retail stores, and cities—with more profitable energy solutions.

Since companies employing the network orchestrator business model outperform other types of companies on several significant dimensions, it may only be a matter of time before pure network orchestrators emerge and establish themselves as key orchestrators within the Energy Cloud. As in other industries, Navigant strongly believes that new players will enter this field to become the network orchestrators of the utility industry.

So with that said: Who will be the Uber of the utilities industry? More to come on this soon.

 

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