WCX 2024: Traditional OEMs Vs. Startups: Report to Cite Strengths, Weaknesses

A report based on comments from industry leaders that set out to determine whose approach is better reveals stark differences in their approach to engineering.

The main hall of WCX 2024 at Huntington Place in Detroit. (Chris Clonts)

An SAE white paper on the different engineering approaches taken by traditional automakers and recent arrivals indicates that each category is remarkably aware of the others’ strengths and weaknesses.

From our preview: There are things traditional companies do better. Software isn't one of them.

Sven Beiker, a graduate management lecturer at Stanford University and managing director of the consultancy Silicon Valley Mobility, authored the report “Two Approaches to Mobility Engineering. He gathered commentary from every corner of the vehicle ecosystem, from suppliers to software companies to manufacturers, and summarized the findings in a presentation Tuesday at WCX 2024 in Detroit. Rather than “old companies,” Beiker likes to refer to traditional automakers as “incumbents.” Here are a few common observations from the report, which will be published this summer:

  • Newer players are better at simplifying complexity, such as Tesla’s ability to build vehicles with fewer parts. Older automakers are better at managing complexity, such as integrating disparate systems.
  • Newer companies are constrained by financial resources and a shortage of available talent. Traditional companies are constrained by existing staff and “this is the way we’ve always done it” thinking and inflexible facilities.
  • Newer companies are good at innovation in the name of customer centricity. Incumbents are very good at creating and maintaining processes.

On the innovation front, Beiker said many comments that formed the basis of the report expressed that automotive newcomers “like to try radical new solutions even at the risk of losing customers,” while older companies tend to avoid market failure at all costs, sometimes resulting in “bland, look-alike products.”

Stanford management lecturer Sven Beiker speaks in Detroit about the forthcoming “Two Approaches to Mobility Engineering” report. (SAE/Chris Clonts)

Looking forward, Beiker said that rather than old vs. new, the mobility market is likely to move toward “region vs. region” competition. That led to comments on how strong Chinese companies are in the EV market. Mentioning it as a Chinese strength, Beiker mentioned Ford CEO Jim Farley’s admission that traditional OEMs have a tough time with software. “It’s so difficult for car companies to get software right,” Farley said on the “Fully Charged” podcast in June of 2023. “We have about 150 modules across the car, developed by 150 different companies, written in 100 different languages, that don’t talk to one another.”

The WCX session was hosted by Monica Nogueira, SAE’s director of content acquisition.

It isn’t often that someone presenting a report admits that it started with a problematic premise. But that’s just what Beiker did. “This report was going to be about Silicon Valley vs. Detroit,” he said. “But we determined it's not really an ‘either or’ anymore. And, it’s not just about Detroit. There are many other strongholds in the automotive industry globally… There’s Tel Aviv, Shanghai and many other places.” Beiker also mentioned two personal observations:

  • Traditional manufacturers “tend to see the glass as half-empty” while newer companies are more optimistic.
  • Though competition in the industry is fierce, each side was complementary of the other’s strengths.