Smart Glasses And The Auto Industry Part 1

Shared in Explorations on June 15, 2021

To see smart glasses take hold within the general public I expect them to enter the high-end auto market first. The customer profile, the limits of the technology, the strengths of the technology, industry trends, and brand impact all point towards potential adoption and growth within one of the world’s largest markets.

Industry Trends

Belt lines are getting higher, pillars are getting wider, and general visibility out of modern cars is alarmingly decreasing. This is the primary force behind why you may have noticed the trend of high-quality exterior cameras becoming more prevalent. These changes all add up to terrible exterior visibility and spacial awareness, especially when not in forward motion.

The automotive market is also smack in the middle of lifestyle trends and marketing with a focus on ruggedness. Automotive makers are widely pivoting to EV markets as well as small displacement, high output engines (unless of course you’re Dodge and still attempting to rotate the earth one Hellcat engine at a time and we love you for it). To not lose generations of customers who came up with the sounds and smells of gas and diesel powered autos and don’t understand how an electric car isn’t more than an oversized RC play-toy, there is an overwhelming need to show how rugged and old-school-cool your brand is.

Every manufacturer from Ford to Honda through VW have planted somewhere in their lineup a rugged-oriented automotive or package to say “we still build them like we used to.” This is the type of trend and marketing decision we expect to see a strong direct rebound off of which will head directly towards its direct counterpart solution as the new marketing direction- urban-first oriented technologies.

Enter Urban Digital-Natives and their comfort with wearables. With the quality of cameras increasing, and the similarly increasing ability to add even more to the exterior of cars, you could find yourself feeling like you’re in the cockpit of an F-35 with the ability to see through the sides of your ride at any time, creating an unimpeded view of your surroundings. Yes we are really talking seeing through walls here- and even more: No passenger head in the way. No passenger visor blocking the view for taller drivers. No more massive-blindspot-causing pillars in the way. Even those weird moments where you’re behind the stopline but still can’t see the light so you have to do that weird kind of sit-shrug so you don’t miss the change. All of that is gone and moved to a toggle on your glasses giving you near x-ray vision to your immediate surroundings.

This experience would likely be a non-starter for nearly everyone older than the early adopters from Gen-X with flex in the direction of the technology enthusiast elder Millennials. However, for those who have spent more time playing video games and ride sharing than spending time behind the wheel of a car- this experience would likely be nothing new. It would likely feel more natural for this generation to drive with addud HUD-like elements rather than without. Through this age bracket- those born roughly between 1995 and 2008- there could be a foundation for mass market adoption with a hypothetical release not coming out until 2025.

Glasses For The Masses

When you hear smart-glasses, the image that comes to mind is most likely still Sergey Brin donning a set of glasses back in 2012 with a weird rectangle thing on the side and an odd crystal stuck in front of the glasses.

Quickly we all learned about glass-holes even if we didn’t know what the term was referring to. We just knew we hated whatever reason that term had to exist. Smart Glasses didn’t start out with the bang the iPhone had - which I think is what most of us expected. Instead, it became a shelved project waiting for the right time to shine.

That form factor though- can we ever achieve something that doesn’t look like a Minecraft glitch on your specs? There are many rumors and some attempts at it- but most still fall short of being both mass-market stylish, comfortable for the wearer, while also adding utility worth the price tag.

What if we can hide the true price within the cost of another product, specifically in a category where people either don’t mind the price or even want to brag about the cost. Much like high-end luxury automobiles or their supercar and hypercar cousins. Once achieving this price-tag nullifying tactic, all that’s left is form factor, capabilities, and market fit. There are a few brands with the resources, recognition, and market-positioning that can pull something like this off.

Industry Movers

From the outside looking in, the auto-industry is cut-throat and has been that way for over a century. It’s a reason most companies we’re aware of today have long histories as their own namesakes such as Ford, Mercedes, Cadillac, BMW, and Toyota. Toyota being the only one mentioned with under a century as an auto-manufacturer. Which is why newcomers such as Tesla and the other newly spawned EV focused companies such as Rivian and Nio have come up against so much push back from the industry and their ability to shift public perception. Not to mention their power to shift local lawmakers and critical suppliers away from the favor of the new kids on the block.

Just the mention of Tesla must have you suspecting that I’m about to pin them as the most likely to head this direction. While I promise to share my thoughts on this possibility further, you may be surprised to hear that I don’t expect them to be the first to move towards this technology.

What are some of the main attributes in a company going after a technology like this? Critically, what is the company’s access to resources, talent, and partners. Confidence first goes to those companies part of larger groups: Volkswagen AG, Honda Motor Co., General Motors, and Stellantis. The size and reach of these corporations to pool multi-business resources towards a singular outcome would be massive on the global scale.

A few smaller additions would include BMW group, Daimler AG, Toyota Motor Corp, and Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. There may be some crossover assistance between the smaller groups such as BMW and Toyota with evidence pointing to their recent team-up to build the Z4 and Supra.

What about the small volume but big brand players? We have to include the likes of Tesla, Ferrari, McClaren, Aston Martin, Pagani, and Koenigsegg if their examination provides only clarification on our intended outcome.

Risk Pattern Awareness

These are widespread brands, each of which bring their own image of risk taking, customer demographics, and world reach. We need to find which of these has a risk profile resilient to balance a product with the potential to impact technology history moving forward with the likelihood of damaging their reputation if it fizzles more than it bangs.

I’m going to first remove those the least likely to pursue this. Unfortunately, these are most of the hypercar and boutique automakers. Mainly due to the risk profile not fitting their limited budgets being unable to take the hit of a big miss with a project at this scale. These brands wouldn’t necessarily help move the tech to mass-market without a buyout with the foresight of Facebook snatching up Instagram. Unless Aston Martin has a real Q working behind the scene, we’ll unfortunately be dropping them from this list along with Ferrari, McClaren, Pagani, and Koenigsegg.

Tesla stands out from this crowd. They’re not primarily in the supercar and hypercar business by traditional measures even with cars doing 2.6 second 0-60mph. Next, they’re still coveted by many, especially in the USA, as an attainable status symbol on wheels. Finally, they have Elon and his capability to build multiple companies simultaneously that, when combined, all point to getting us to Mars. Tesla makes the cut for now.

Let’s move up a rung on the company size ladder. BMW is a hard one to take off the list, but their dedication to being the “driver’s car” makes me think they’ll hesitate at going after tech such as this first for the fear of disconnection from the “pure driving experience.” Similarly, Toyota as the “Everyman’s car” would never go after this under that brand name until the tech is fully established and prices have come down- just look at how long some of the tech in their cars has been considered out-dated by other manufacturers. This also removes their luxury brand Lexus from the competition, especially after they chased the LFA for so long. Maybe we’ll see the resurgence of Scion as a technology focused product line sometime in the future.

Daimler AG is an interesting group. Mostly known for Mercedes-Benz cars and Daimler Trucks, they have access to robust technology, high-end markets, and world-wide exposure. Mercedes-Benz comes with a strong brand perception in both American and European markets with the added bonus of their AMG division. Daimler AG is high on the contender list.

As far as American brands are considered, GM is the surprise contender here. The new Hummer is a perfect match for this technology value add. Giant size (and an assumed very poor visibility), a pivot to a younger generation’s tech focus, and a symbol of the old-school fossil-fuel incinerating world being replaced by the power of the electric engine. Hummer could be our unexpected ringer in this race especially at the price tag for one of these giants rings up. Perfecting this type of tech on the Hummer platform gives GM the opportunity to not only roll this out to other large vehicles such as the Chevrolet Suburban and the Cadillac Escalade after some time refining on a single platform, but also find use for it in their performance cars such as the Chevrolet Camaro and Corvette- both of which offer testing capabilities in different levels of professional racing. GM brings a strong set of reasons to demand attention in this tech race.

Sticking with a bit of American flavor, Stellantis carries Jeep and Dodge into the mix. I find this interesting because both American brands have held onto nostalgic idioms and are pushing current gas power engines and traditional platforms to their extremes. This may put them at the back of the pack in terms of technology adoption, but it may put them at the advantage of being part of the market rebound mentioned earlier. I consider Stellantis an honorable mention here, but won’t be including them in contention because the pivot would be very unexpected.

Volkswagen AG, or VAG, brings within it a list of brands that when combined bring a power equal to that of Voltron to this competition: VW, Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Porsche, Lamborghini, and Ducati amongst others. The combined manufacturing capabilities, mass-market reach, technology focus, and individual niche branding ability makes VAG the horse I’d bet on taking this challenge.

Then I learned more about Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, also known as Geely, and I started to wonder. Could they actually pull this off? At first I dismissed them with my first research only pointing to Volvo, Polestar, and Lotus as their autobrands. That’s where I nearly went wrong- deeper research shows their reach into many industries but there are two other things that really got my attention: The Chinese ownership and their self-identified focus on becoming a Global Mobility Technology Enterprise. There’s a lot of grey area in that goal but combined with their other focuses in technological innovation and talent cultivation- they sound like they’re ready to shift the world of transportation into the future. They would be positioned well to reach mass-market appeal with new glasses technology as a safety feature with their ability to put their technology directly into the brand known worldwide for their focus on safety: Volvo. One more item of note while we’re on the topic of brands and resources, Geely also has a 9.7% stake in Daimler AG. Now Geely is really making this future competition very interesting. We can’t ignore the world political influence at play here, too. If China could position themselves as the innovator and provider of true next generation technology around the world, they would land a huge economic hit on their cross-pacific rival, the United States.

The Right Stuff

Now that we have our main entrants VAG, Geely, Tesla, GM, and Daimler AG- who’s buying? In the next part of this thought exploration I’ll paint a picture of who the early adopters and smart-glasses-in-my-car-is-the-coolest-thing-ever brand ambassadors will be. What problems are they hoping this technology will solve or what value will they add to their lives at both the best and worst of moments.

Coming soon: The Right Stuff