I have been writing what has become a series of articles, this being the third or fourth, that in summary are intended to present some ideas for new directions for corporate strategy in the golf car industry. It is quite clear that over the past few years, industry leading companies have diversified their product line, moving progressively from a unique focus on golf cars, to low-speed vehicles (LSVs), to utility and off-road vehicles (UTVs). Thus, it is not altogether appropriate to identify our industry as one of building and selling golf cars. We are clearly way past that stage of development. (We at Small Vehicle Resource anticipated this trend in the early 2000s, adopting the industry descriptor, small, task-oriented vehicle (STOV).)
What are the new potential markets (for U.S.-based manufacturers)?
Setting aside for the moment needed product modifications, what are some of the likely new markets on which the STOV industry could set its sights? At least two strategic avenues are worth exploring:
1) Mainstreaming in the urban market--a specialized vehicle for the urban (not suburban) market for gentrified inner city dwellers. This demographic shops and dines are local establishments. It is a congested environment that basically requires a small vehicle for personal transport and getting around for mundane tasks, such as hauling the groceries. Parking is a premium, where less (i.e., smaller) is definitely an asset. This is also a demographic that appreciates the environmentally-friendly aspects of electric power. Some of the barriers to this otherwise positive opportunity are indicated below.
2) Entering the international market place--diversity is the name of the game in the international market. Obviously, I'm not talking about golf cars. Certainly it's a market, but the far larger one is the array of small vehicles that zip around the streets of cities and countryside of Europe and Asia. In Europe you have the quadricycle vehicle concept, which covers a range of vehicles from low-speed inner city to on-road types. In Asia, you have three-wheelers, four-wheelers, and even what are called e-rickshaws. These small vehicles are used for both personal and commercial transportation. And make no mistake about it, this is a mass market, if we consider all the vehicle types--likely in the range of 3-4 million units.
Clearly a market opportunity exists in this global theater, but success in the market will depend on a solid entry strategy and a focused market plan.
Product development is a key component in exploiting new markets
To exploit these potentially rich markets, modifications to current U.S.-based vehicles would be needed. In addition, exploring certain new technologies would be in order, some aspects of which would need infrastructure development partners. Start, however, with the basic golf car chassis. U.S. manufacturers have the required drive train manufacturing expertise. While that is in place and ready to go, radical changes in styling are needed. Leading the pack in this regard is Garia--in particular what the company describes as, "A Real Sportscar" inspired by Mercedes Benz design. You can get a glimpse of this vehicle at http://arealsportscar.com/inner.ph . It gives you the idea of what can be done in advanced, attractive styling for the urban market worldwide. Also, take a look at the Rinspeed gallery of vehicles for inspiration at http://www.rinspeed.eu/# --especially the small car model the company will be presenting at the CES.
Asian three-wheelers and four-wheeler small vehicles are far more utilitarian. Minimally redesigned transporters, that are one of the principal categories of offerings in the U.S., could potentially be a successful entry in this market.
New technologies beckon
STOV manufacturers have adopted many on-road vehicle attributes and incorporated progressive upgrades in braking, steering, and drive trains over the years. What, in addition, could further the cause of market expansion in the realm of technology?
I have already written about autonomous vehicle technology as a potential feature on the gated community LSV/golf car and in the makeup of an inner city transporter. Mainstream vehicles are now showcasing at the Consumer Electronics Show, rather than the Detroit Auto Show, presenting sensory-based driving systems, as well as other smart-car features. In my view, these innovations and developments should by studied by STOV manufacturers.
Another major avenue of potential technological advance would be the use of carbon fiber/carbon composite frames and body panels, as well as decorative accessories. Because the superior strength characteristics of carbon composites, compared to steel and even aluminum, at a much lighter weight, their incorporation in product development would accomplish two critical objectives: Providing a safer vehicle that could survive crash tests, and a much lighter, therefore potentially faster vehicle with more distance capability. The one advantage paves the way for the other--particularly a faster speed. Of course the major question with regard to carbon composites is the cost. Yet, these costs have been declining steadily as continued research in the field is paying off.
Once again I am out of space to treat a complex topic with a myriad of tradeoffs. The question arises, where are the visionaries in the STOV industry, who would take the industry's generic capabilities and expertise to the next level in market and product development? A good SWOT analysis is in order, I would say. Maybe next time. Stay tuned.