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Is this the most connected car ever?

Is this the most connected car ever?

Lynk & Co, a Chinese car firm, is trying to break Europe and America through a radical approach to technology

Lynk & Co, a Chinese car firm, is trying to break Europe and America through a radical approach to technology

Gavin Green | March 22nd 2017

China has given much to the West: gunpowder, moveable type and dim sum. But its innovations in automobility have been less enthusiastically adopted. Lynk & Co, part of the giant Hangzhou-based Geely Group (which owns Volvo, among other marques), hopes to succeed where others have failed. Next year, it will launch a small SUV in major Western markets.

Lynk’s USP is its technology. Most car companies would say that, but then go on to explain how powerfully their engines perform, and how low their drag coefficients are. Lynk is using technology in less glamorous but more fundamental ways – to transform car use and ownership.

Instead of a key, a smartphone app will lock and unlock Lynk’s cars. This allows for much more flexible use. For example, a car owner could authorise a garage, via the app, to collect her car for servicing and return it afterwards, or allow dry cleaners to leave and collect clothes from the boot of the car. Access by app will also allow owners to rent out their cars easily. As most cars are only used around 5% of the time, this could be a tidy revenue stream. Lynk would manage payments and insurance.

More radically, the app facilitates shared ownership. Lynk intends to partner with builders, developers and landlords to offer pooled cars in apartment blocks – renting and buying a flat might lead to a share in a vehicle. Car-sharing companies such as Zipcar have worked, but group ownership of a car is a novelty. Lynk hopes that it will appeal to younger customers who, they believe, are more interested in roaming on wheels than in owning them.

For those insistent on being the sole user of the vehicle, Lynk plans to offer a short-term subscription, modelled on a mobile-phone deal. As with phones, you will be able to upgrade your model at the end of your contract. If you insist on buying a vehicle outright, don’t think you will be able to haggle your way to a bargain. There will be a fixed purchase price, designed to make the process less stressful. Like Tesla, that other automotive insurgent, Lynk & Co wants to do away with franchised dealers. It will manage its own sales channel; online purchases, rare with cars today, will be encouraged. Taking out the middleman will save money: Alain Visser, senior vice-president of Lynk, and previously head of marketing at Volvo, reckons the average distribution cost in the motor industry is about 25% of the value of the car. Will this appeal? Some buyers can’t bear the torture of haggling with experienced car salesmen; others prefer to square off in search of a bargain. 

Lynk is also promising a new approach to connectivity. Its infotainment and telematics platform, developed with Ericsson, allows third-parties to develop their own apps – just as they do for smartphones. In theory, there are limitless opportunities for making car travel more interesting and versatile. “The smartphone’s success really took off when third party-apps became available,” says David Green, Lynk’s chief digital officer. “We want a similar revolution in cars. We want to open the door to the chocolate factory and make it easy for partners to create new apps and services. We’re confident we’ll have more digital ecosystems around our car than any other car maker.”

Green expects thousands of novel proposals that will make car usage faster, safer, more convenient and more fun: one suggestion is an app that allows different cars on a road trip to sync speakers “so you’re all listening to the same music”. Other mooted apps include one for adaptable insurance, so that you’re covered for fire and theft when the car is parked, and fully comprehensive only when driving; a fuel-pay app, allowing your to buy petrol automatically without troubling the garage cashier; and a proposal for ensuring an uninterrupted journey – just set the cruise control and your speed will be adjusted so that you always arrive at the traffic lights just as they turn green.

There are reasons for scepticism. General Motors once tried the dealer-free sales model, for its Saturn brand, which was billed as “a different kind of car company” – and failed. Car-sharing may breed that special kind of rancour that arises from a plurality of owners. And Lynk is vague about a number of its ambitious plans, describing them as “work in progress”. Yet the notion that technology is going to transform our relationship to cars is now widely accepted in the industry.

Millennials are the target. “Young people aren’t that interested in cars. We’re hoping to make them interested in us,” says Visser. “The whole car-making model hasn’t changed much since Henry Ford 100 years ago. Car makers manufacture cars, pump them out to independent dealers and hope they sell. They insource engineering, design and manufacturing but outsource the complete customer experience, including the retailing. It’s a very old-fashioned model.”

Lynk styles itself not as a car company but as a mobility company. At the brand’s Berlin launch the vehicle played second fiddle to the business model. For the record, the new car is a sharply styled small SUV that shares much of its technology with the upcoming new Volvo XC40 and will probably cost less than an equivalent Toyota or Ford. But this is a company that doesn’t care for comparisons.

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