Can BlueCar create an upset in the auto industry?
The BlueCar that the Bollore Group (France) is about to launch will be the first electric car to run on the LMP (Lithium Metal Polymer) battery, which Bollore claims will deliver superior autonomy and performance/weight benefits. While Bollore banks on this technological innovation to create a decisive competitive advantage, it is also conscious of being a new comer in the world of auto manufacturers, lacking brand recognition as well as distribution and aftermarket channels. Can Bollore create an upset? Here are a three readings of the situation.
Innovating from the edge (see To innovate, get out!)
For 30 years, the Bollore Group has been a world’s leading producer of components for capacitors, building tremendous know-how in the fields of electricity storage and polymers. Recognising that the rate-limiting factor in the development of the electric car is the performance and autonomy of the battery, Bollore’s subsidiary Batscap has been working for 15 years to develop a superior solid-state Lithium Metal Polymer battery designed for the automotive application. By contrast, auto manufacturers having no knowledge in the area of electric batteries have focused their effort on upscaling the Lithium Ion batteries that are used successfully in the electronic industry. In addition to the performance gap, Bollore claims that Lithium Ion batteries can degrade above 60 degC (which is an implausible temperature in a mobile phone but not so implausible in a car engine), while its LMP batteries can sustain an operating temperature up to 180 degC. Bollore’s LMP technology could indeed prove a case in point for radical innovation coming from the edge of the field, while established players at the core of the industry get stuck in incremental solutions.
Time-to-market (see Time-to-market is more critical than IP)
While Bollore has developed the LMP technology over 15 years and had ample time to cover it with a portfolio of patents, it has pointedly refused to license the technology or even get it tested by auto manufacturers. According to CEO Vincent Bollore himself, the reason is that patents can always be worked around, especially by players who can muster much more considerable resources. Only now that it has developed (partly organically and partly through outsourcing) the production capabilities it needs to commercialise the BlueCar imminently, Bollore is starting to discuss licensing the LMP technology with – reportedly – just one automaker. The tactic is designed to push automakers to adopt Bollore’s LMP technology instead of designing their own alternative: with the BlueCar in the market, the interest of the one automaker who has access to LMP will be to exploit it as fast as possible before Bollore licenses other automakers who will then be in a hurry to adopt it too and get their own electric cars in the market. While IP does play a role, Bollore could not rely on it to protect the business opportunity it has crafted; time-to-market tactics are more vital to the commercial success of the LMP technology.
Business model innovation
The BlueCar is not for sale! For now at least, it is only for renting. While car rental is not a new business model in itself, launching a new car model through rental only is probably a first. This could be a very clever move to overcome consumer resistance. Bollore lacks brand recognition amongst consumers, it does not have a track record in automotive, and it does not have the aftermarket channels that the average consumer would find reassuring for something as expensive as a new car. By renting its BlueCar for 330 Euros per month, Bollore lowers the perceived risk to such an extent that it virtually demolishes the customer resistance to buying from a new entrant. This is a powerful reminder that product innovation often goes hand-in-hand with business model innovation – as the iPod with iTune.
Will the BlueCar itself create an upset? I don’t think so, and I don’t think this is Bollore’s objective. As a vehicle, the BlueCar could be a local success but probably not to the point of disrupting the car market. But could LMP technology be a breakthrough innovation that gets electric cars into higher gear? I’d bet on it. Would you?