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The U.S. Auto Industry Fails to Understand Personal Mobility

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There is a reason that Apple, Inc. is the company the media and consumers look to for setting and creating consumer trends. Every time Apple delivers the next generation of its technology, there is an overwhelming demand from consumers to buy the product immediately. Unlike any other company in the world, Apple designers know how to create products that people want -- sometimes even before they know they want it. Apple doesn't think of themselves as a maker of smart phones or laptops. Instead, they believe that they create ways to enhance your mobile lifestyle.

Sadly, the Apple process is still largely unique to many American industries. Perhaps the most egregious example of a self-infatuated industry is the U.S. auto industry.

Detroit is a national punch line over its ongoing bankruptcy filing, which has been described in the Wall Street Journal as "a brawl." The city's disastrous inability to manage pension plans means that creditors could receive less than 10 cents on the dollar. And last month, the controversial auto bailout officially ended after five years when the U.S. government sold its last shares in perpetually-troubled General Motors. The loss to American taxpayers: $10.5 billion.

GM's new CEO Mary Barra has promised to go global with an initiative that sends engineers to dealerships to meet and understand customers. But in Detroit, it's always one step forward, two steps back. GM also announced plans to return to advertising in the Super Bowl -- choosing a costly shotgun approach to reaching consumers over smart engagement that inspires loyalty.

U.S. automakers still haven't learned their lesson. Young consumers are not convinced that making the largest purchase outside of a home is right for them.

In nearly every city in the nation, driving is down. The demand for public transportation has even spread to car-loving Los Angeles, where five simultaneous light rail projects are currently underway. Research shows that America's loss of interest in driving is not directly correlated to unemployment or income decreases. In fact, it's the opposite -- the biggest declines in driving came in cities without such economic problems.

Car companies just haven't paid enough attention to the consumer. Auto executives erroneously believe that consumers understand the clunky nature of making an automobile today. We all have high hopes for Tesla -- an innovative company whose sister company SpaceX sent numerous rockets into space. But even CEO Elon Musk hasn't cracked the code of personal mobility. Executives believe that they are in the business of making cars. But they are wrong. They should focus on being in the business of enhancing personal mobility.

The millennial generation is averse to buying expensive cars. Contrary to popular belief, they don't hate cars. But committing to one of today's expensive, yet generic, product offerings seems too little in return for the investment. If it were just about getting from one place to another, then they would prefer to take a bus or use Uber.

The rise of personal mobility is something to be embraced, not feared. Consumers no longer want cars as the one and only means of transportation in the same way they don't want to be tied to a cable TV subscription alone. The entertainment industry has slowly but surely learned to embrace digital downloads, slinging content, social apps, mobile media and streaming video as customers cut the cord. Once cable companies figured out that consumers just want the freedom to choose, Comcast announced an uptick in customers and an end to the talk of the death of cable.

Detroit must take a page from Hollywood and integrate the auto experience with walking, bicycling and rail. It's not enough today to just look at the narrow industry in which a company operates. Successful companies look at how people's lives intersect around them and find solutions that work with consumer behavior.

The auto industry doesn't have time to waste. They need to capture the imagination of the American consumer again. Listening to their customers and changing their design and production processes is imperative. We all want a better consumer experience when driving our personal vehicles. Without it, an automobile purchase will remain a painful experience for all but a handful of people.