I have just written an article about "Smartphone-ization of cars" in Nikkei Business Online in Japanese. Essentially, it talks about Ford's "MyFordTouch" strategy, to position itself as relevant to youth culture, who shifted from automobile-centric to mobie/net-centric lifestyle. In it, I just praised Ford's sincere effort, but I implied a sarcasm to Japanese automakers, who complain that recent Japanese youth are not interested in cars, and say that it is the sign of the young people becoming "too tame." Sounds like they put blame on their (potential) customers, rather than trying to change themselves.
Well, after I wrote this, I received a lot of interesting comments from readers, and one of them showed me another interesting statistics from AdAge. It says that U.S. youth have exactly the same tendency to the Japanese youth.
It supports what I said in the article. I am also a bit relieved to imagine that my son, who is fast approaching to the driving age, may not hurry to drive a car!
Just got an e-mail newsletter from Tesla that they opened the door of the new factory in Fremont, CA, the former GM-Toyota JV NUMMI plant on Wednesday (10/27). I am REALLY excited to hear this!
I have never had a chance to visit NUMMI, and I am ALL THE MORE interested in visiting there someday. I spent a month in Honda Accord assembly line in Sayama as a new employee training almost 3-decades ago, but never have seen the electric vehicle factory.
Can someone give me the writing assignment or something, so I have an excuse to go there!!??
When Toyota founder's grandson inherited the throne, the company was in the red, for the first time in its history as a public company. But I was a bit cynical, believing that they were playing dead, and thought that they would come out miraculously quickly. My attitude came from the fact that I know through my friends at Toyota how carefully Akio was protected and nurtured. I thought they would NEVER put Akio in the CEO position in such an environment, unless they knew for sure that they would turn around quickly, so Akio would become a super hero.
See my Jan 09 blog entry here:
Just about a year has passed since this announcement, and for sure the company's financial is expected to show a good recovery this fiscal year, but things do not seem too great in Toyota lately.
This morning, I heard a news on TV that Akio finally appeared in public, first time in 2 weeks since the recall problem started to go around. No video image was shown on TV - the press conference was held in Nagoya, Japan, and looks like the image was not widely available for the U.S. press.
It looks strange to me. I worked for Honda in the 80's, and even then, I learned that auto companies were VERY sensitive about such product quality issues, particularly for the U.S. market, where consumer rights are bigger than anywhere else and is the largest auto market in the world. So I have to assume that peole in the quality assurance and P.R. in Toyota must know how IMPORTANT it is, to take a quick damage control in such circumstances. And it is a common sense that the very top person should appear publicly as soon as the danger is found and show the public that he is taking care of it.
There is a conspiracy theory going around on the Japanese Net that the U.S. government (particularly LaHood) and the U.S. press are treating Toyota unfairly, compared to their U.S. counterparts on the similar situation. U.S. auto companies are getting a huge financial help from the U.S. government, the theory goes, and the government/press want to beat up Toyota to help sales of GM and Ford. OK, so what? Japanese auto makers have been dealing with such a situation since 1970's. That is the reality of this world, and they know how to deal with it. Right?
But a doubt has started to creep in to my belief in Toyota's invincibility lately. I wrote a small column on Nikkei Communication Feb.15 issue about IT and US auto makers. I wrote it in early January, right after Ford announced its MyFord Touch. In it, Ford CEO Alan Mulally calls himself "your fellow geek", and stressed that the new Ford IT system is based on Silicon Valley-style open architecture. I was really impressed by that quote, and added a few facts about Tesla, a Silicon Valley-based electric car venture, to write a new trend in the U.S. auto industry.
I was shocked to watch the 2006 documentary movie "Who Killed the Electric Car?", and at that point in the Bush era, I had an impression that the auto companies in the U.S. (including Japanese cars) were getting lots of influence from the oil industry, and the oid-industry-supported government. Now that the administration changed, maybe the whole power balance has shifted. Obama is close to Eric Shmidt, CEO of Google, and the current government may be positioning Silicon Valley as their "strength", rather than "traitors" which destroys the current industry order and the job market in elsewhere in the U.S. So that was my conclusion of my small column.
These days, when I watch Toyota's news, another concern creeps into my mind. I read a 2006 Japanese book on the demise of the Japanese electronic industry, written by Fumiaki Sato, and there, he was comparing the auto industry and electronic industry. Back then, GM was still bigger than toyota, and he says that it is important for Toyota to keep them alive and continue to be positioned as No. 2, rather than becoming the very top and destroying GM. Because then-inefficient GM was putting high prices, backed by their price leadership position, and Toyota could enjoy a fat margin based on that high market price. Sato says that in the electronic industry, such "wind shield" was lost by destroying the U.S. manufacturers altogether, and the unlimited cut-throat competition ultimately brought the success of Korea, Taiwan and China, rather than the high-cost Japan. So, it is quite symbolic that Toyota surpassed GM in terms of the numbers of cars sold and GM went into bankruptcy, when Toyota started to send out yellow signals.
Prof. Satoshi Matsubara at Toyo University was very active on Twitter today, about his negative views of Toyota as well as his support of electric cars. In fact, Toyota was not very enthusiastic about electric cars, and instead, they have built their leadership in hybrid cars. Prof. Matsubara speculates that it is because electric vehicle destroys the whole ecosystem of auto industry, from the parts manufacturers to the gas stations. It is a typical "disruptive technology" described in "Innovator's Dilemma". Toyota has been treated as the "eco" champion with Prius, but it actually may be just an effort to keep the status quo alive.
I have been following Tesla closely for the past 2 years or so. I am aware that there are too many problems with that company, but I have been feeling quite awkward that Japanese press has been totally ignoring it. It can become a part of this disruptive technology which may in the long run threaten the pillar of Japanese economy, Toyota and Japanese industry. I imagine many people would be more interested in what is going on in that front, but looks like nobody has cared, at least so far. I proposed a publisher that I write a book about Tesla early last year, and they were kinda half-hearted. It was good that I didn't, because nobody would have bought my book. Is it just me, or is it yet another example of "paradaisu sakoku (seclusion in paradise)" symptom?
I support the opinion of Prof. Matsubara, that they should consider electric cars more seriously and do away with all the negative myth about it. I also sympathize him on his concerns about Toyota's recent direction.
What is going on in Toyota now? Japan's economy depends on Toyota and auto industry so much. And I have too many friends at Toyota. I hope my concerns are just my imagination, and that they know what they are doing.
Mr. Stuart Chambers resigns from a position of CEO of Nippon Sheet Glass NSG) abruptly, citing "family reasons".
Chambers took the position just a bit more than a year ago and made a headline in Japanese business press, as it was a rare case where a Japanese company chose a foreigner in a top position after the company acquired a British company Pilkington.
As you can hear in the interview, he points out "I could not become like a Japanese salaryman, who puts priority in work over family."
That reminded me of my days in Honda - I worked for Honda Motor in the 80's. There, in retrospect, the work-life balance was quite good. We did not have to put long hours like the typical Japanese companies. While I was a bit unhappy that my work hours were limited unfairly against men and therefore was getting less pay, but overall, still the work hours were not terrible at all.
Honda is a truly global company, and now I can say that the company was making a genuine effort to keep the work condition on "global standard". Other Japanese companies, I guess, still have a long way to go.
It is a distant memory in the 80's that Japanese DRAM vendors dominated the world, and U.S. government pressed Japanese government to slow down the export to the US. As a result, "US-Japan semiconductor pact" was signed to limit the export, which actually worked as an effective cartel and sustained the price of DRAM during that period.
After the pact term of 10 years was over, the market crashed. During this cartel period, Korean manufacturers invested heavily and marketed aggressively, and they quickly surpassed Japanese makers.
Two struggling Japanese semiconductor vendors decided to consolidate together to save the situation. The semiconductor divisions of NEC and Hitachi got together and created Elpida Memory. As a rare case among mergers of major Japanese companies, it has been doing relatively well for the past 10 years. They are currently ranked #3 among the DRAM vendors in the world.
However, with the global economic meltdown, they have to consolidate again. This time, maybe because there seem to be no other good Japanese partners, Elpida is talking to three Taiwanese vendors - Powerchip Semiconductor, Rexchip Electronics, and ProMOS Technologies. Taiwanese government will provide financial support to these companies, and Elpida is considering for help from Japanese government. The combined entity will rise up to the #2 player, behind Samsung.
So there we go. After a full circle, once-mighty Japanese DRAM industry is coming to the end of the end, I guess. No particular opinion about itself, but looking back the time when I came to the US in the 80', I can't help but remember those days. Time flows like water in the river, and it is not the same water anymore.