Thursday, July 17, 2008

At the dawn of the automotive age there were those who built chassis and those who built bodies. A whole car involved at least one of each. This arrangement resulted in hundreds of "automakers" in the United States. Over time, exploiting economies of scale the industry came to be known as the "Big Three". However bigness has its downside too and the majors find it impossible to anticipate where the market is going en masse. Exploiting small niches profitably is also difficult. Factories are shuttered. Layoffs announced. Hands are wrung.

The design process that once required a small army of engineers and support staff can now be done on relatively inexpensive CAD/CAM equipment. If you have development money you can beat the bigs to the small profitable niches and outsource the actual building of the car. Thus we see Tesla Motors funded by Elon Musk who made his nut at PayPal and Fisker Automotive led by Henrik Fisker and his impressive design portfolio from BMW, Aston Martin and others combining with eager venture capitalists to become the new car manufacturers.

If these new conglomerations succeed, we could be witnessing the dawn of a new automotive industry. These cars are aimed at a small but lucrative segment where the price of entry is $100.000 and up. These cars will never sell in numbers that make sense to GM or Ford but there are certainly 5000+ buyers a year for someone who can deliver the green performance car well heeled motorists desire. Fisker and Musk are looking to leverage the technology pioneered on these cars into larger numbers of cheaper, mainstream vehicles.

As automotive suppliers become suppliers of components to an ever more modular and computer-centric auto industry, one can imagine the emergence of completely new manufacturing entities. The Dell Dynamo? How about a GoogleCar?

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