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Jim Saker: Why carmakers are no longer masters of their own fate

Jim Saker

Peter Drucker was an Austrian-born, American academic who has been described as the ‘founder of modern management’. He was one of the most influential thinkers from the 1950s through to the 1970s. Ironically, much of his early work involved criticising General Motors, which, at the time, was one of the world’s most successful companies. 

Drucker developed ‘management by objectives’, a concept that was embraced by much of industry. Perhaps one of his most profound statements was: ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.’ Although this does sound a little trite, the motor industry has been an example of what can be achieved by continually attempting to develop and challenge the existing order with improvements in both design and technology.  

The ability to create ones’ own future requires being able to navigate not only the immediate competition, but also the wider macro environment within which the industry is embedded.  

This involves addressing the changing political, legal and economic climate using developing technologies to address the changing socio-cultural attitudes of the consumer. 

The history of this development has been led by motor manufacturers, which have taken the automobile from being a product for the rich to a necessity for the masses, with a comprehensive distribution network on virtually every continent of the world.  They have been able to create their future and in so doing have taken the industry forward. 

I, among many others, have written articles attempting to predict the future of the motor industry. Historically, this has been relatively easy – using Drucker’s management by objectives, you could identify the direction of travel of most key players. However, this is no longer the case. 

Probably the best example is the debate over the future direction of powertrain technology.   Will the future be EV, traditional hybrid, fuel cell hybrid or pure fuel cell?  Which becomes dominant will not depend on the manufacturers’ choice, but on the supporting infrastructure that is developed. And this infrastructure will not be developed by our industry, it will be the result of government policy incentivising others to provide the refuelling/recharging facilities that cars of the future will require. 

This means our future is not in our own hands. The future of the industry is dependent not on the technology, but what is provided to support it. Predicting our future is almost impossible as it is now in the hands of the politicians. Judging by the current track record of decision-making at Westminster our future is at best unpredictable, but certainly not one that we can easily create. 

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