Digital technologies are reshaping our lives. Everything from banking, shopping, dating, job hunting, and watching TV can now be done anywhere, anytime — faster and easier than ever.
For business, rapid technological advancement creates constant challenges to remain relevant and competitive in an increasingly globalised market. Innovation is no longer a ‘nice to have’ — it’s a necessary strategy for survival.
Here we look at how digital advancement and changing consumer demands are affecting the automotive industry and investigate some of the initiatives helping small business keep pace.
Moving into mobility
While all industries are feeling the effects of digital disruption, automotive is perhaps feeling it more than most.
Electric and hybrid vehicles, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, machine learning, and augmented and virtual reality are already changing all aspects of the auto industry — from the way we design, build and maintain vehicles, to the way we drive, buy and own them.
At the same time, our cities are changing. Infrastructure, vehicles, and consumers are becoming increasingly entangled by the need to move people and goods quickly and efficiently.
The automotive industry is not just transforming, it’s evolving into the industry of mobility.
To help businesses keep pace, the Motor Trades Association of Queensland (MTAQ) launched the aptly named MTAiQ in 2017—Australia’s first dedicated automotive innovation hub.
MTAiQ brings together mentors, investors, coaches, commercial partners, and industry experts to collaborate on digital disruption and emerging technologies.
Its aim is to help existing and new start-up automotive businesses to develop business models to take advantage of opportunities offered by new technology.
For MTAQ CEO, Dr Brett Dale, innovation in the automotive industry won't just shape the future of the industry, it will shape our way of life.
“Our industry is a bit like food and water. As humans we’ve become dependent on mobility and automotive. In one sense, we’re lucky because there’s an immense demand for our services and products. But, given the technology we’re responsible for, it also poses great challenges.”
For many businesses, innovation can be intimidating. A lack of time, money and resources are obvious barriers. So too is a lack of expertise and support to identify new technologies and adapt to changing consumer demands.
Dr Dale said a degree of denial in the automotive industry is also holding some businesses back.
“Our industry is slowly coming to the party. As a peak industry body, our focus has traditionally been on shaping government policy. But given the rate of disruption across the industry, we know how important it is to keep members informed about emerging technologies and to create solutions to enhance their businesses.”
He also makes it clear that innovation is driven by consumer demand — not technology itself.
“Technology is the how of disruption, consumers are the why. Platforms like Airbnb and Webjet have changed the way people shop. We need to think about how we use these kinds of platforms to position ourselves at the forefront of change.”
To this end, MTAiQ takes an entrepreneurial approach to innovation with a focus on speed, agility, and taking calculated risks.
When businesses bring potential products and services to the innovation hub, they are quickly assessed by an expert panel assembled from businesses in MTAQ’s member and training network. If the idea is deemed viable, they immediately proceed to the next stage of development.
Dr Dale said it’s all about using their pooled resources to keep things moving.
"We’re not experts in all fields, but we’ve got lawyers, accountants, and industry and industrial relations experts on staff. I also have a doctorate in intrepreneurship. Basically, we just sit down and figure out how we can help develop opportunities on the run. There is no one size fits all approach.”
So far, it appears to be working. The Refueler app, an MTAiQ supported start-up venture reinventing the future of fuel trading, is set to roll out in the coming months.
The app — built on blockchain technology — allows consumers to monitor fuel prices in their local area and pre-purchase fuel at the low-end of the price cycle. They can then collect their fuel anytime in the next ten days.
The benefits are two-fold: consumers can buy fuel at discount prices and fill up when it suits them, and retailers can increase foot traffic in store by removing the need to queue when prices are low.
Overall, it’s a better fuel buying experience for all.
MTAiQ has also worked closely with the ACE EV Group — an Australian company aiming to import components to build commercial electric vehicles.
The first vehicle was built in the MTAiQ workshop in March 2019, and there are big plans to produce a ute, delivery van and a city car.
Dr Dale said, “ACE has just been successful in picking up $75 million in funding and is looking for the last $10 million before rolling out a full blown assembly operation in regional Queensland. These vehicles will have a range of 400kms and sell for around $35,000 Australian dollars.”
He also said MTAiQ’s work with ACE is a prime example of how they can help businesses connect with government, industry, and academia.
“Government will always work slower than we’d like — particularly when you’re dealing with entrepreneurs — but there’s been genuine collaboration between government, academia and business to try and bring in new opportunities and technologies to the state.”
Virgin founder Richard Branson once said, “Small businesses are nimble and bold and can often teach much larger companies a thing or two about innovations that can change entire industries.”
Despite this, Peter Strong, CEO of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA), said that some small businesses turn off when they hear the word innovation because of bad experiences with consultants who don’t understand their business needs.
This lack of customised engagement from innovation experts is one of the reasons COSBOA teamed up with the Victorian state government and Paddl — a web application that helps university and TAFE students get work experience and skills — to launch the COSBOA Innovation Games (Victoria) in 2018.
The Innovation Games is a series of fast-paced, single-day events that bring together small businesses, major Australian companies, and emerging young talent to develop real-world solutions to substantial business issues.
The events are structured much like a tech-based hack-a-thon.
Participating small businesses are assigned a dedicated innovation team that includes six students and graduates in fields like IT, data analytics, finance, marketing, and creative design.
The team then works in a series of sprints to identify business problems and apply design thinking principles to come up with a solution.
At the end of the day, each idea is presented to an expert panel who decide a winner.
As with most innovative ideas, the Innovation Games are geared to create a win-win scenario.
Small business owners get the chance to work with innovative thinkers on specific real-world problems (they also get to keep any Intellectual Property created on the day); participating students receive networking and real-world problem-solving experience that will help them approach employers in the future.
Mr Strong said the strength of the games is that they are aimed at “Average Joe” businesses. Having the business owner involved in each step of the process also means the focus stays on the specific needs of each business.
“At an event in Bendigo, a hair salon was given the tools to expand their business by offering a home service via an online booking platform. Not only will the technology bring in more business, it made it easier for the contracted hairdresser to know what work they’ve got. It was a great result for all involved.”
So far, the Innovation Games have run three events and assisted over forty small businesses to come up with solution-based ideas to help their businesses grow and compete.
With another two events scheduled for 2019, Mr Strong hopes to see them grow bigger and better.
“There’s talk of more happening in NSW through one of the universities. Eventually, we hope to roll it out nationally. Apart from being a great way to connect small business to the emerging workers, it’s also a great community event.”