From Sir Henry Royce setting out in 1903 to improve on his Decauville by producing Rolls-Royce’s first six-cylinder motor car, the Silver Ghost, to a group of Silicon Valley engineers collaborating one century later to create a viable electric vehicle that would result in Motor Trend‘s 2012 Car of the Year, the Tesla Model S, automotive innovation has long been catalyzed by the belief that there is always a better way to build a car. What’s changed over time is where the spark of inspiration comes from: The visionary toiling alone in his garage has given way to a more collaborative process between manufacturers and consumers.
While the model has gotten a boost from the pulsing hive mind of the Internet Age, high-end, low volume manufacturers such as Rolls-Royce have been working like this for ages. Rolls-Royce’s bespoke program has been a core part of the company for its entire existence. For the brand, fostering a creative conversation with the client is just business as usual. “As a design team, we’re in a fortunate position where we are quite close to customers and we can understand their needs, wants and desires and react quickly,” says Alex Innes, bespoke designer at Rolls-Royce. Both sides benefit: The customer receives a one-of-a-kind, tailored vehicle and the manufacturer expands its ideas and capabilities. For example, by accommodating customers’ then-outlandish requests to put phones in their cars in the early 1970s, Rolls-Royce probably helped lead the way to the easy connectivity to smartphones that’s a standard option in mass-produced cars today.
Customers expect to walk into a consumer electronics store or log on to the NikeID website and personalize the products they buy, so it’s natural that in the future all car buyers, not just those able to afford half a million dollar flying carpets, can expect to have their wishes fulfilled. The tradition of bespoke automobiles provides a blueprint for what car buying could someday be. Lamborghini’s Ad Personam program, the Q by Aston Martin program and Porsche’s Customer Consultation program were established to offer buyers an infinite variety of paint and special trim options. Customers can have their initials embroidered on the headrests, match the paint color to their wife’s eyes, or wrap their door trim and AC vents in exotic animal skins.
Admittedly, for many automakers, it’s not feasible for every car to be hand-built. Companies like Porsche have made efforts to integrate many special requests into their main production line, keeping costs and turnaround time to a minimum. But even though customization options may only add several weeks, not months, to delivery, that’s still too long to wait for some buyers. Sascha Glaeser, manager of Porsche Cars North America Customer Consultation program, says, “There are people who want to be unique and want one-off cars, just like they buy tailor-made suits or shoes, but there are also those who want cars right away. We see that especially in the U.S., where people say ‘I want the Porsche and I want it now.'” Rob Filipovic, general manager of product planning for Jaguar North America, echoes the sentiment. “One of the challenges in the U.S. is that it’s a market of conspicuous and rapid consumption,” he says. “The question is, How do you provide really special custom cars on a rapid basis in a market where most vehicles are sold off dealer lots?”
One solution is to do away with lots, rendering every car made-to-order to some degree. With its headquarters in Silicon Valley, Tesla Motors has borrowed from both the tradition of bespoke autos and dot-com’s democratic take on innovation in rolling out its Model S. Instead of setting up conventional dealerships, Tesla opened stores in shopping malls and retail locations throughout the country. Potential buyers can wander in and explore, a model that has worked well for the personal electronics industry. George Blankenship, former chief strategist behind Apple’s retail stores who is now VP of worldwide sales and ownership experience for Tesla Motors, explains, “When we started to think about how we would interact with customers, it started with considering the questions ‘What if buying a car was fun? What if buying a car was something I looked forward to doing? What if it was something I enjoyed doing and wanted others to participate in?” Tesla’s novel approach is helping it build a loyal and passionate customer base.
Much like a beta-test group for software, early Model S owners have provided invaluable feedback on performance and drivability. Some of their recommendations for steering, suspension and braking presets have been incorporated into updates that Tesla sends out over cellular networks. “Given that we have a direct connection with our customer, we have a direct feedback loop. The community tells us want they want, and we can accommodate with a software update,” Blankenship says. While some consumers may not see the point of buying an $80,000 car that’s a work in progress or aren’t comfortable with, as one New York Times reporter learned, allowing Tesla to track the way in which their cars are being driven, others see it as a way to participate in putting better cars on the road in the long run. (Note: Tesla allows users to opt in to having their driving data sent back to the company.)
The made-to-order trend in the automotive industry is representative of a larger cultural shift in how we view innovation—in the best case, outside influencers can provide answers to questions that automotive designers have yet to address and collectively, we’ll be able to put faster, sexier, and more efficient cars on the road in less time. Who knows? A seemingly esoteric request from a dentist in Chicago may contain the kernel of the next major advancement in cars. It’s up to automakers to do their part and listen and learn.