Disruption As a Strategy: Technology Leadership Brief 2012-01-9013
In the automotive sector, few changes are more disruptive than moving powertrains away from the century-long tradition of liquid petroleum fueling. Powertrain development is one of the largest areas of long-term investments in the automotive sector, requiring research, development and testing years before production and significant commitments of capital by the OEM and suppliers to establish and sustain complex vertical production systems. Once in series production, incremental improvements (”kaizen”) will be expected to keep the powertrain current through a decade or more of changing conditions in consumer needs, regulatory requirements, retail dealer sales & service, and supporting infrastructure.
Powertrain systems are particularly dependent on externalities outside of the automaker and direct supply chain. Fuels, lubricants, additives, and other consumable materials must be readily available to consumers throughout the planned production run plus the expected vehicle lifespan, a period spanning multiple decades.
Among non-petroleum power sources, fuel-cell hybrid vehicles powered by hydrogen offer the attractive potential of lower energy costs, reduced emissions and lower greenhouse gases, combined with the potential for quick, convenient and inexpensive refueling. Hydrogen powered vehicles face daunting obstacles and may require different business models to overcome current availability and distribution issues for refueling; concerns about refueling convenience and availability, range, and hydrogen safety must also be addressed.
With challenging barriers on the vehicle-side, customer concerns about usability and unresolved infrastructure issues, one might weigh the potential future returns against the current costs of developing hydrogen-powered vehicles and find the risk too great. But high barriers to entry also mean that a successfully implemented advanced technology powertrain strategy paired with complementary business models and external infrastructure development can contribute to the success of the enterprise, offering high rewards for the OEM, suppliers and dealers, increasing innovation throughout the enterprise, and provide crucial brand differentiation along with other ‘first-mover’ advantages.