Tag Archives: Toyota

…on the Entrepreneurial State

With the next Canadian federal election less than a year away – and undesirables like Wayne Gretzky soon to be purged from the voter lists – I’ve been getting a lot more fundraising emails lately. As of mid-December I’d received nineteen in eighteen days. It was like a Christmas advent calendar, but in my email inbox! (Like a beleaguered Silician storekeeper, I paid my “protection money” and now they’re leaving me alone. :) )

Politicians are often derided for their short-term thinking, which is probably a fair criticism. If you ballpark an election cycle at roughly four years, newly-elected officials might take a year to learn the ropes, a couple years trying to be effective, and then a year trying to get re-elected. Judging by how successful those old Soviet and Chinese Five-Year Plans typically were, that might not be quite enough time…

The kind of decade-scale industrial policy used so effectively over the past half-century by Japan and South Korea (and Singapore… and Taiwan… and to an extent in Norway) typically occurred when these countries were dominated by one political party. This political stability may have allowed government and industry to set effective long-term plans without fear that a few years on, a new Prime Minister would reverse course on everything.

Of course, one-party dominance is no guarantee of long-term economic success – as evidenced by Mexico, parts of both the American South and South America, and … Alberta. As recent history shows, our neighbours would rather stay a Saudi prince’s whim away from economic catastrophe, than raise sales and income taxes to build up a treasury to buffer themselves from the ravages of the resource cycle. It’s as if they’d read Aesop’s Fable about the ant and the grasshopper, and concluded the grasshopper was the role model!

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The quest for the golden meme


Golden mean image sourced here.

It’s been a pretty good month, in terms of writing. Over at GreenCarReports, I had my piece on September EV sales in Canada, a Canadian Thanksgiving-centric story riffing on the country’s nationwide EV charging network, and discussed what our EV drivers do, to get through Canadian winters.

Topping that off, Corporate Knights will be running a piece of mine, in an upcoming issue!

Innovator’s Dilemma, Toyota edition

Coolest of all, though, was a Jeff Cobb story in HybridCars.com, which referenced my article on Toyota’s Innovator’s Dilemma with Electric Cars (GCR version here, bonus blog notes here).


It’s nice to think you’ve contributed to the public discourse, or helped “frame” the conversation around a topic one cares about. Even though you may well be one of several like-minded people who came up with the idea independently. :)

The surveillance state as an auto-immune disorder

Another example of converging memes — or maybe, just maybe, someone else reading me and liking my talking points — comes from The Guardian, which ran a comment-is-free column which included the line:

“The American body politic is suffering a severe case of auto-immune disease: our defense system is attacking other critical systems of our body.”

One of my mid-summer blog entries — The surveillance state is an autoimmune disorder — used imagery to that effect. To my elation, that piece actually got picked up by a few financial blogs, whose curators thought the metaphor apt.

“In this sense, [the surveillance state’s] behaviour maps to that of an immune system that has been hijacked by an autoimmune disorder, and is treating the body’s own cells as invaders. The main difference is that the surveillance state exists at the societal level, while autoimmune disorders exist at the individual level.”

…and we wrap up in “Bloom” County…

My biggest contribution thus far — the closest I’ve come to a “golden meme” — has been a line from the McKinsey piece I coauthored, which read:

“…an expansive transmission grid dominated by a few central power plants is vulnerable to disruption from both natural phenomena and human malevolence.”

Basically, if you have a few centralized power plants, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters can have catastrophic consequences if they strike at the wrong place(s). Ditto if saboteurs were to strike target those key bottlenecks. But if your grid is fed by thousands of locations spread across a wide geography, it’ll be harder to knock it offline, because no single bottleneck or node will be as crucially important as in a centralized system.

Bloom Energy adopted it as one of their key talking points, as evidenced on their website and elsewhere. Which I found annoying as a fuel cell engineer at one of their competitors… but which I found delightful, as a writer! :)

Their business resiliency page mentions natural disasters once, and disruption twice:

Bloom 1

A few select press releases (e.g. March 2012) also leveraged my work. Eagle-eyed readers will note the use of vulnerable … disruptions … human [intervention] … natural [disaster]. The talking point was repeated in numerous media outlets, as a quick Google search revealed.

Bloom 2

The earliest Bloom Energy story I could find which references the “distributed grid is less vulnerable to terrorist attack / natural disaster” factor is this Dec 2009 story from The Atlantic, titled Who Needs The Grid?

Bloom 3

Since electron-democracy was published in March 2009 — nine months before the article in The Atlantic — and, carrying the McKinsey imprimatur, would likely have been passed along to Bloom, I’m pretty confident that I know where that talking point came from.  :)

It’s possible that Bloom could have simultaneously come up with this phrasing and framing on their own (the meme equivalent of convergent evolution) and I’m okay with the uncertainty. In the end, it allows me to blithely assume that my creation has enjoyed its biggest success, in others’ hands. Kind of like how so many Canadian artists and athletes eventually move to the United States, I suppose. :)

The Innovator’s Dilemma, Toyota edition


This car — yes, this car — has impeded Toyota’s electric efforts

My post on how The Innovator’s Dilemma explains why Toyota lags in electric vehicles — and how Kleiber’s Law explains there’s nothing for them to worry about (yet), is now up on GreenCarReports.

While the Tesla stats were cooler to have dug up, and will probably enjoy a broader readership, this particular piece was more gratifying to write; the Innovator’s Dilemma is a fairly well-known concept in business circles, but there’s a tendency to incorrectly think that all industries get changed and disrupted quickly. To adapt from yesterday’s screed, the world of software changes a lot more quickly than the world of stuff.

And Kleiber’s Law probably (partially) explains why.

The GCR article had to be edited down, and some of the rejected detritus included this little comparison of hybrid and EV adoption rates below. Think of it as rounding out the “complete and unabridged” version of the article.

Note: I thought electric vehicles would have roughly the same adoption rate as early hybrids, figuring that greater sales due to a broader product selection from various manufacturers, would be offset by lower sales due to the higher sticker price. Boy, was I wrong. :)

Though I might claim that gov’t rebates “distorted the market” (in a very positive way, mind you) I’m not so egotistical as to be unable to admit to mistakes, so I’ll file that for future learnings… after taking this quick religious diversion. :)

A quick religious diversion

On the topic of “complete and unabridged” versions, people who peruse the Christian scriptures (the “New Testament”) will notice that the Gospel of Mark is a lot shorter than the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke. This is most likely due to the fact that back in the day, there were two standard scroll lengths: a short one, and a long one. Kind of like how we have letter paper (8.5″ x 11″) and legal paper (8.5″ x 14″) today.

Mark, chronologically the first of the three to be written, was written on a short scroll, and Matthew and Luke wrote on the longer ones.

A more interesting case is that of the book, Acts of the Apostles, commonly credited to Luke — whose name almost certainly wasn’t Luke, because people tended to assign famous works, to more famous people. The same tends to happen in our modern era — for instance, this British revocation of the American Declaration of Independence  is commonly attributed to John Cleese, though he didn’t write it.

Acts exists in two commonly-circulated versions, one about 10% longer than the other. While this is less impressive “genetic variation” than one finds in other texts — the Buddhist Dhammapada has more variants, possibly because it was translated into multiple languages early on, before anyone with overarching authority tried to establish a “canonical” version, as happened in Christianity. There, someone identified by scholars as “The Ecclesiastical Redactor” (possibly Polycarp of Smyrna) created a standard edition fairly early on. There are many reasons for hypothesizing this, not the least of which is that essentially all manuscripts available to us share the same abbreviations of key terms (from memory, Theos is abbreviated Ts and Iesous is abbreviated Is).

All of which is a phenomenally long-winded, trivia-filled way of saying that the text appended below would form the “10% longer” version of my GreenCarReports article.  It originally was included before the paragraph “The Innovator’s Dilemma – why Toyota’s tepid on electrics”.

Hybrid history and the plug-in path

Plug-in electric vehicle enthusiasts have exchanged many a high-five over the fact that in the United States and probably elsewhere, plug-in adoption rates have thus far surpassed hybrid adoption rates. Here again, context is valuable.

In the first four years of hybrid availability in the United States (2000-2003) oil was cheap, and consumers could choose between three hybrid vehicles — two small (the Prius and the Civic Hybrid) and one even smaller (the Insight). These were sold by Toyota and Honda, who shared about 17 percent of the automotive market between them.

In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that electric vehicles are being adopted faster, given the greater awareness of our environmental challenges, higher oil prices improving the cost/benefit equation, government incentives, and — perhaps most crucially of all — widespread automaker participation.  

By the four-year anniversary of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt’s December 2010 retail debut, ten carmakers will offering production plug-in electrics stateside: BMW, Daimler (Smart), Ford, GM, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Tesla, Toyota and VW.  (Fiat is excluded from the preceding list, as the 500e is a compliance car available only in California.)

These automakers control about 75 percent of the US auto market, and by December 2014 their product offerings will range all the way from subcompact commuter cars to SUV‘s. To adapt Alfred Sloan’s old phrase, there’s now a plug-in “for every purse and purpose”. Fierce competition has already resulted in lower prices, which will only accelerate sales volume, which will itself improve economies of scale.

The witless wisdom of Shai Agassi

dunning_kruger_effect by AddAttack

Dunning-Kruger effect graphed by AddAttack on DeviantArt.

LinkedIn has an “opinion leader” piece from Shai Agassi, founder of bankrupt car-battery-switcher Better Place, telling carmakers how they need to respond to Tesla’s success. Who better to give them advice than a guy who raised $850 million for an ignorant, impractical, impossible business model, then drove his company into the ground?

Inviting Agassi to share his clearly-witless wisdom about the auto sector, would have been like inviting André Maginot — architect of the not-so-great wall of France — onto the post-World War II lecture circuit to talk about the future of warfare.

Pre-fisking preface: about Agassi

Before we get to the meatless bones of his commentary, we’ll start with a bit of background about Agassi. From Wiki, he seems to’ve been a very successful software entrepreneur. He may even have been the Michael Jordan of enterprise software — the thing is, Michael Jordan knows that no one wants to hear him talk baseball.

Unfortunately, being so impatient that he didn’t want to wait two more years to become the CEO of SAP, Agassi resigned. Alas, power bends judgment as surely as gravity bends light, and he decided he was destined to remake the auto industry.

Agassi’s clueless enthusiasm — let’s treat Smart cars like smartphones! — makes him a textbook case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which basically states that:
– people who’re experts at something, know they’re experts;
– people who’re non-experts, know they’re non-experts;
– and people who lack the faintest clue, are so ignorant of their very ignorance that they think they’re experts too.

It boggles the mind that LinkedIn would list a guy who proved himself so catastrophically wrong, as a “thought leader” — what’s next, NPI (new product introduction) advice from Sergio Zyman and Brian Dyson, the men who brought you New Coke?

Pre-fisking preface: the business world’s Kim Kardashians

Of course, LinkedIn brought Agassi in not because of insight, but eyeballs. Or as the TV world calls it, ratings. LinkedIn’s “thought leaders” don’t need to have a track record of success, they just need to draw traffic to the site. And while LinkedIn might have snagged some deep thinkers, one rather imagines that most successful businesspeople are too busy, you know, running successful businesses, to pen puff pieces.

Which means the content providers will inevitably be attention-hungry, less-successful entrepreneurs: the business world’s equivalent of reality-TV stars. Except that reality-TV stars know they’re not A-list actors, while these entrepreneurial remoras seem to think they’re sharks. Again, Agassi might well be a software shark; but when it comes to cars, he’s chum.

Pre-fisking preface: channelling Tom Friedman

Agassi’s piece is so breathlessly definitive in its vacuousness that it looks to’ve been ghostwritten by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ opinion columnist most famous for the book The World Is Flat, written in his signature algorithmically-reproducible writing style.

To his credit, Friedman isn’t just a billionaire’s daughter’s kept husband: he has a unit of time named after him, the six-month-long Friedman unit — “F.U.” for short — for the fact that for two-and-a-half years he insisted Iraq would turn the corner in the “next six months”.

People wanting a cortex cleanse from Friedmanisms (e.g. “suck on this“, “hyperconnected“) are well-advised to read lots and lots of Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, whose signature anti-Friedman diatribes are the epic essays Flathead, and Flat N All That, the former of which is the source of the cartoon “The Moustache of Understanding” below. (click to embiggen)


That done, let’s turn back to Mr. Agassi’s titular wisdom from this LinkedIn post.

Three lessons from a highly ineffective founder

“Some of the most serious reporters concluded that Mr. Musk should throw his doors open and share all his secrets with the current carmaker. Tesla had already partnered with both Toyota and Daimler, so one should assume they shared some secrets with those market leaders.”

No, Tesla didn’t share secrets with Toyota and Daimler; they negotiated contracts to develop the battery systems for the California-only RAV4 EV compliance car, and the Smart Electric Drive. This is readily-available information; it’s taken me longer to type this paragraph, than to look it up!  Can a software guru be Google-illiterate?

“Imagine for a second that car companies are like yachts racing in the ocean. While the entire industry represent yachts jostling for position along a similar course, Tesla’s catamaran diverged from the pack, and all of a sudden seems to be gaining tremendous speed.”

Here’s a perfect Friedmanism – first off, a catamaran is not a yacht. If it’s in the race, then the opening sentence should say “boats racing in the ocean”. Next, the writer tries to express the idea that the Tesla catamaran has “raced ahead of” or “broken from” the pack. But “diverged” implies a detour; a wrong turn; it implies Elon Musk’s ship is accelerating in the wrong direction. What began as a promising simile has crashed on the rocks of impaired grammar. Editor…! — is there an editor in the house??

1. An electric car is an object of desire

All cars are objects of desire! That’s why companies invest so heavily in advertising and branding – to make them into objects of desire! The only person in the auto industry who ever treated cars as commodity products, was the guy who thought he could the manufacturers to build all their vehicles off a generic-enough design template to make it easy for him to switch the batteries!

Instead of deciding on “what environmentalists will be willing to give up to drive electric”— such as having only two seats in the back of an odd shaped car — Tesla decided to build a car that supersedes all buyer’s expectations.

First off, Tesla doesn’t target environmentalists, who frankly aren’t wealthy enough to afford luxury sedans. And “two seats in the back of an odd-shaped car” ? This is a throw-back to the EV1, which was fifteen years ago. That’s so long ago, they didn’t just release a movie about how it got killed, they released a sequel! Two years ago!

There is one (1) two-seater plug-in car available in the US today: the Smart Electric Drive, which looks exactly the same as a regular Smart. Why, it’s the very vehicle that Tesla used to work on with Daimler. (The current Smart Electric Drive is a 100% Daimler product.)

And there are at least nine plug-in cars on the market today that seat four or more people, and all of them look like normal vehicles. Well, except the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which looks normal in Mitsu’s home market of Japan. One of these normal-looking electric vehicles, the Chevy Volt, has won Consumer Reports’ award for highest customer satisfaction two years in a row, implying that yes, Shai, Olde Economy carmakers know how to meet buyers’ expectations with electric vehicles.

Seriously, claiming that Tesla is the first carmaker to discover that the secret to EV’s is to exceed customer expectations, is as ludicrous Italian Renaissance doctor Realdo Colombo claiming to be the first person to have “discovered” the clitoris in the 16th century — as if it was a faraway continent! How much of a bubble would Agassi have to live in, to think that after a hundred years featuring such iconic zillion-selling vehicles as the Model T, the VW Beetle, and the Toyota Corolla, it took until Tesla for anyone actually, finally get it right?  It’s a statement so stunning in its Valley-centric, navel-gazing ignorance, as to be mockworthy.

Oh, and one last thing – “supersede” means “to take the place or position of”. Tesla did not build a car that “took the place” of buyer’s expectations. It built a car to “sur-pass” or “ex-ceed” buyers’ expectations. Presumably, the spell-checker caught that sur-ceed wasn’t an actual word and suggested “supersede” instead. Furthermore, all carmakers already exceed their customers’ expectations, though most of them aim for lower price points than Tesla did with the Model S. It’s one of the reasons why they manage to sell so many more vehicles than Tesla does.

The lesson: Design a car that provides car buyers with the possibility of upgrading both battery and software, while retaining the car [over twenty years]. Such a possibility will enhance the resell value of cars, and in doing so could drastically reduce the monthly lease new buyers will face at the dealership.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Shai Agassi probably doesn’t drive the same car he’s owned since the first World Trade Center terrorist attack (1993). It’s hard to imagine that someone who tried to be part of the auto industry would be so blissfully oblivious to the fact that people’s car needs change over time. (How many university students buy minivans because they plan to drive their future tween-aged kids around town, twenty years hence??) But then, this is a guy who thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to convince the world’s major automakers to all change their designs, for his benefit.

Batteries are “Exponential Technology” – they benefit from reduced cost, improved storage and longer life with every generation, all of which are compounding year over year. Exponential technology is the most disruptive force that hits incumbent industries.

Every technology improves exponentially, because of a little phenomenon called the experience curve that applies in almost every manufacturing endeavour. Including internal combustion engines. There’s also the fact that batteries improving at 8% per year (at best) are far less disruptive than microprocessors doubling in speed every eighteen months. More broadly, rules from the world of software don’t always apply to the world of stuff. Our author should know this, given that his great success at SAP prepared him for … even greater failure with Better Place.

More broadly still, if he believed batteries were doubling in speed every eight years, what the hell was he doing trying to set up a battery-switching based business model??  The improvements in battery technology would have been a “disruptive force” that would’ve soon torpedoed Better Place, if he hadn’t sunk it himself, first. More likely, he started Better Place because he didn’t believe batteries would progress very fast — and rather than admit he was wrong, he glosses over that point. The reader’s ignorance is his bliss.

So average your future cost estimated down heavily and plan for profits to come after volume goes up the s-curve instead of focusing all your calculations on the first batch of cars.

They already do this!!  Development costs for new vehicles run in the hundred of millions — the Volt topped a billion dollars — so the fact that new product launches don’t bankrupt “Olde Economy” automakers kind of implies they know how to amortize development costs over years’ worth of vehicle sales. It’s the height of arrogance for a man who didn’t know how to price his own auto industry product, to lecture established car manufacturers on how to price theirs. He’s a naked, failed courtier raving about his clothes. (I’d’ve called him an emperor, but he hasn’t enjoyed a modicum of auto-industry success.)

The lesson: If you launch a new category, consider very seriously launching it under a new brand with a whole new experience. Direct sales will allow incumbent carmakers not only to control its brand experience; it also translates into a lower per-unit cost of sales once volume starts to pick up. Ask Apple…when you have a differentiated product, you want a differentiated destination store for people to come and experience it. If you do it right, the retail value per square foot beats the rest of the industry – by a mile!

One wonders if Agassi was using a team of ghostwriters and there was a shift change, because earlier in the article it’s (correctly) noted that “mass-market carmakers should probably never try to repeat Tesla’s model – in making cars or in business model. What works for Tesla will not work for GM, and most likely be value destructive for any mass-market incumbent.”

And yet several paragraphs later, it’s recommended that mass-market carmakers repeat Tesla’s model of direct sales because, “if you do it right, the retail value per square foot beats the rest of the industry – by a mile!”. Did he not proof-read his own article? Does he care? Is this a secret homage to Harry Frankfurt’s classic, On Bullshit?

Mass-market incumbent automakers have a massive advantage over Tesla in their omnipresent bricks-and-mortar stores, which give them direct reach and presence in tens of thousands of locations around the world. No one in their right mind would give this up — but then, no one in their right mind would champion or fund a battery-swapping company for cars. (Tesla’s situation is different, as their proposed swapping stations can be run at a loss – they aren’t a company profit centre. Better Place’s swapping stations were intended to be profit centers.)

The analogy with Apple fails as well; before the Apple Store, there were Apple “store-in-store” locations at Best Buy and other retailers. The automobile analogy would be to have a separate part of a showroom dedicated to a manufacturer’s electric vehicles. Dealers already dedicate different areas of their showrooms to various vehicles, and the sales person’s job is to help people find the vehicles they want. Besides, the showroom model is working pretty damn well for electric cars — Nissan is having trouble maintaining Leaf inventory at dealers, because it’s selling so fast!

In brief…

While LinkedIn may have thought Shai Agassi would make a great auto-sector “thought leader” — he’ll draw readers as surely as Kim Kardashian (somehow still) draws viewers — they would do well to recognize that they didn’t land themselves an automotive Steve Jobs; they got themselves a Steve Ballmer instead.