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Volvo taps BlackBerry veteran to turn cars into iPhones on wheels

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“Everything you can do in your smartphone will be almost inherently native in the vehicle,” said Volvo’s new CEO Jim Rowan.

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Automakers fought over who offered the latest and greatest hardware: the most powerful engine, the most comfortable seats, the silkiest speakers.

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As automakers try to turn their vehicles into rolling, smartphone-like devices, the race will revolve around the next big thing in chips that improve infotainment and vision systems, as well as general car controls.

“It’s really the big change that’s happening in the industry,” Jim Rowan, a former BlackBerry and Dyson executive who started as CEO of Volvo Car last week, said in an interview on Tuesday.

This is of course far from the first analogy with a smartphone used to describe the evolution of the automotive industry. Doug Field, Apple’s former automotive project manager, made the comparison when he joined Ford last fall. Volkswagen’s Herbert Diess warns his staff against ending up like Nokia.

Rowan, 56, has seen the upheaval up close, from the perspective of a major player on the wrong side of the disruption. During his time at BlackBerry, the company more than quintupled its revenue to over $20 billion. But by the time Rowan left in 2012, BlackBerry’s once-dominant brand and operating system had been largely beaten by Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android.

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“Apparently the product stayed the same,” Rowan said. “You could make a phone call and you could share some data. But the transformation between a feature phone and a smartphone, in a very short time, has transformed the use of this device a thousand times over. »

A phone was no longer just a phone. And the same thing happens to the car.

“A vehicle is a vehicle, but what we’re going to do in the journey we’re on is make so much technology available in this vehicle that it will massively expand the use of this next-gen mobility,” said Rowan. “Anything you can do in your smartphone will be almost inherently native in the vehicle.”

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Volvo C40 2022
Volvo C40 2022 Photo by Graeme Fletcher

Here’s an excerpt from Rowan’s conversation with Craig Trudell, Global Cars Editor at Bloomberg. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What were the conversations that led you to become CEO of Volvo?

When I first engaged with the board, it was around the challenges Volvo faces in the future. We have a fantastic automotive business – almost 42,000 people in the business, and the vast majority of those people come from an automotive background and have been in the industry for decades.

So we covered everything, and the idea was that as the industry goes through this massive transformation – part of it is electrification, but that’s really the easier part, if I am honest. The biggest part of the transformation will really be in software and basic computing. This technology will be leveraged to drive next-generation active security systems – so Lidar, radar, cameras and, of course, the software stack that enables this.

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The actual software on the vehicle itself becomes a much bigger part of the value proposition. They were looking for someone who came from a consumer electronics background, who had worked at a very fast pace, who could combine that with all the skills we already have in automotive, and hopefully we get that kind synergy effect, where one-and-one equals more than two.

How will Volvo change the way it develops and deploys software?

We’re going to have to be a lot smarter about the decisions we make about whether to make or buy software, and we’re going to have to understand software on a much more vestral level than before.

That doesn’t mean we have to do every software stack, but we have to be able to control how we interact with vendors and build that end product, that interface that we’re looking for.

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How do you get the most out of the computing power you spend a lot of money to put in the vehicle? How do you ensure that you are using it correctly and in the most efficient way?

What did you learn about the automotive industry during your time at Dyson, when it pursued but ultimately abandoned an electric vehicle?

When you have a project where you say we’re going to build a car from scratch, you learn a lot about all that’s involved. It is a very complex product. You look at the supply base, the technology, the cost, where the industry is going. As a newcomer, you really have to go to school on all aspects of this.

It was a good learning exercise. At Volvo, we have excellent factories, fantastic designers, all the infrastructure, a supply base, a technology roadmap, vehicles on the road and loyal customers. Transforming Volvo from an internal combustion engine company, to an ICE and hybrid company, to a battery electric vehicle company, is much easier because we have momentum, and all of these skills, people and investments. Doing it as a startup is extremely difficult.

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What is the state of semiconductor supply for Volvo?

We had made pretty decent progress in terms of scarcity, but there are a few types that are stubbornly unavailable. This will affect us in the second quarter. By the end of the second quarter, we expect we’ll start to see a much more robust supply of these, and then pick up speed in the second half of the year.

One thing is clear, and that is that we need to further digitize our supply chain. The same way we build this digital backbone to reach customers, we also need to build a highly sophisticated digital supply chain infrastructure. That doesn’t mean we have to switch providers, but we have to be able to connect with them to get real-time data, take that data and analyze it, write algorithms to run what-if scenarios, identify breakpoints, and decide if we need two sources on a particular component.

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