The Fu­ture Is the Past

The en­tire auto in­dus­try is bet­ting on self-driv­ing cars—ex­cept Mazda’s Masamichi Kogai, who be­lieves lots of peo­ple love to get be­hind the wheel.

Forbes - - Strategies - By joann muller

Squeez­ing the ac­cel­er­a­tor on the Mazda MX-5 Mi­ata as it ex­its a curve on a twisty back road in Michi­gan, you can’t help but smile. In the rearview mir­ror you can see a whoosh of dead leaves ris­ing in your wake, danc­ing to the hum of the ex­haust com­ing from the car’s high-revving, four-cylin­der en­gine. Mazda’s $25,000, 155hp road­ster is not the most pow­er­ful car on the planet—far from it. But with the top down and the sun warm­ing your neck on an un­sea­son­ably mild De­cem­ber day, you just want to keep driv­ing for­ever. It’s that much fun.

Mercedes-benz, Cadil­lac, Volvo—not to men­tion Google, Tesla and, ru­mor has it, Ap­ple—are all rac­ing to relieve driv­ers of that fun. Within fve years, most au­tomak­ers say, they’ll ofer highly au­to­mated cars that can han­dle stop-and-go trafc and free­way speeds with­out any driver in­put. In ten years driv­ers will be able to work or even take a nap dur­ing their com­mute. Volvo just un­veiled the Time Ma­chine, a fu­tur­is­tic cock­pit with a 25-inch fat-screen that ro­tates out of the dash­board as the steer­ing wheel re­treats and the driver re­clines. Google is de­vel­op­ing self- driv­ing cars that don’t even come with a steer­ing wheel or gas pedal.

This is the fu­ture, as­serts Tesla Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Elon Musk. “Any cars that are be­ing made that don’t have full au­ton­omy will have neg­a­tive value,” he pre­dicted in a Novem­ber con­fer­ence call with Wall Street an­a­lysts. “It will be like own­ing a horse. You’re really own­ing it for sen­ti­men­tal rea­sons.”

Not ev­ery­one thinks so. “It’s not just get­ting from point A to point B,” says Mazda’s soft-spo­ken CEO, Masamichi Kogai, who heads up per­haps the only ma­jor au­tomaker that is not work­ing on au­ton­o­mous cars. “Our mis­sion is to pro­vide the essence of driv­ing plea­sure.

“The car for me is like be­ing home,” he con­tin­ues. “As soon as I get in­side the car, no one out­side can bother me. I might go to a lake or to the moun­tains. I don’t know where I am go­ing un­til I get there.”

Kogai has a very clear road map, how­ever, when it comes to lead­ing once strug­gling Mazda into the fu­ture. The com­pany tried keep­ing up with larger Ja­panese ri­vals like Toy­ota and Nis­san and nearly wound up bank­rupt, los­ing bil­lions in the mid-1990s. Ford Mo­tor, which had owned a small stake in Mazda since 1979, soon be­came its largest share­holder, efec­tively controlling the com­pany with a 33% stake. But by 2008, in the throes of the global fnan­cial cri­sis, Ford slashed its stake to 14%, then dumped the rest start­ing in 2010. Cast of in a sea of red ink, Mazda went into a tail­spin, los­ing nearly $3 bil­lion from 2009 to 2012.

Mazda was forced to re­think ev­ery as­pect of its busi­ness, from the way its cars are de­signed and en­gi­neered to the way they are as­sem­bled. Kogai was in the thick of it, first as head of man­u­fac­tur­ing, then as chief ex­ec­u­tive since 2013. He over­hauled Mazda’s man­u­fac­tur­ing foot­print, end­ing pro­duc­tion in Michi­gan while open­ing a new plant in lower- cost Mex­ico and set­ting up joint man­u­fac­tur­ing ven­tures in Rus­sia and Viet­nam.

Cost- cut­ting alone wouldn’t solve Mazda’s prob­lems. It had to fgure out how to be as ag­ile as its cars.

In­stead of de­sign­ing cars one at a time and leav­ing it up to the man­u­fac­tur­ing team to fgure out how to pro­duce them, Mazda pulled ev­ery­one to­gether— de­sign­ers, en­gi­neers, sup­pli­ers, pur­chas­ing staf and

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