Blind Spot: America's New Motor City
Throughout the history of the automobile in America, one city has been synonymous with the industry and culture of cars. Booming with America’s great period of industrialization, Detroit became the Motor City, the hometown of an industry that created a blue-collar middle class and a culture based on personal mobility. But as America has entered the post-industrial age, as the focus of our economy has shifted from production to consumption, Detroit has been left behind. Long used to defining consumer tastes, Detroit was caught unawares by the changes wrought by globalization and the rise of information technology. And as America’s traditional auto industry struggles to redefine itself in the new economy, another Motor City is rising to meet the challenges of a new age.
Though not often recognized as such, Los Angeles has long been America’s “other” car capital. Developing during the rise of the automobile, Los Angeles has become a place where automobile ownership is not just a necessity, but a fundamental aspect of the culture. And as a result of its headlong embrace of the automobile, Southern California has contributed some of the most important elements of automotive culture. From the drive-through fast food joints that now dot America’s landscape to Harley Earl’s design revolution, from hot rod culture to smog control, it is impossible to imagine modern American life without L.A.’s unique automotive achievements.
Industrial-age Detroit was surely grateful for Southern California’s innovative attempts to reshape society around the cars it produced. But as long as the automakers dominated the wealth produced by America’s love affair with the automobile, Los Angeles was seen as little more than Detroit’s best customer. Though an important ally in promoting automotive culture, Los Angeles’s value to the industry was little more than offshoot of its major industry: entertainment. But as global competitors entered the US market, Southern California’s car-crazed culture became one of the first to embrace the imports. And as Detroit’s near-monopoly began to erode, the balance of power shifted: from this point on, consumers would drive automotive tastes with increasing independence.
With this shift, Los Angeles began its ascent in the automotive world. While Detroit lay mired in the industrial age, Southern California developed a taste for the new global menu of automotive options, and simultaneously embraced the new revolution in information technology. Its status as a taste-maker grew, and its focus on consumer opinion, fashion and communication put it in close touch with the values that were reshaping America’s economy. Now, with the information and consumer-economy revolutions largely realized, Southern California is becoming the new center of gravity for America’s auto business.
In fitting with the values of this new world, L.A.’s automotive juggernauts neither produce nor themselves sell automobiles. Instead of factories and dealerships, they have invested in server farms and data models. Rather than controlling information to maximize profits in support of an industrial supply chain, they create and share information in service of the consumer and market efficiency. And through this revolution, the two titans of Southern California’s “automotive industry,” Edmunds and Truecar, have become some of the biggest players in the business of buying and selling cars.
Edmunds.com got its start just as Los Angeles was coming into its own as the capitol of American automotive consumption, and well before the information revolution began to take hold. In 1966, it began publishing booklets which consolidated automotive specifications as a tool to help buyers make informed decisions. Over the years, it has evolved this service from print to CD-ROM, to web page and mobile app. And with new technology, it has dramatically expanded its services, offering everything from news, reviews, and specifications to industry analysis and forecasting, from a live consumer-advice hotline to dealer reviews and its “True Market Value” pricing tool. Never losing focus on its original insight, that consumers need help navigating the crowded new car market, Edmunds has embraced every new technology to expand on its mission and become the most established gatekeeper to the burgeoning world of online auto research and sales.
Entering Edmunds’ brightly-colored offices in Santa Monica, it becomes instantly clear that the company looks to Silicon Valley rather than Detroit. With its whiteboard walls, open cubicles, espresso machines and video game room, the ambience is clearly inspired by Google rather than GM. And like Google and Facebook, Edmunds is finding that its consumer service is just the beginning of its opportunities. So massive is the traffic that Edmunds’ car buying website generates, it has developed its own value as a model for the larger market. As the patterns of research at Edmunds.com shift, the company can track changes in interest in specific cars and brands with an ingenious in-house application, giving it insights into the market that no automaker can ignore. By serving consumers with the latest technology, Edmunds can not only generate huge revenue from advertising and sales leads, but create valuable intelligence for the industry as well.
Though Edmunds’ business model may now embrace the industry as well as consumers, it hasn’t lost sight of its original mission. Indeed, as it has assumed leadership in the burgeoning auto consumer services industry, it has embraced its role as an advocate for automotive consumers in every venue. Leading this charge is former CEO and current Vice Chairman, Jeremy Anwyl, an intense, often-iconoclastic dynamo who has become the closest thing the automotive business has to a public intellectual. Rising to prominence through his regular commentary and industry analysis, Anwyl has become a regular figure at Washington D.C. hearings on everything from fuel economy regulations to distracted driving. Over a brief lunch, he jumped with ease from topics as diverse as EV tax credits and NHTSA incident reporting to sales forecasting and media criticism, fusing a generalist’s fascination with every aspect of the automotive business and culture with an unshakeable focus on serving consumers. While Detroit’s executives often seem inward-looking and overly focused on their traditional industry patterns, Anwyl demonstrates the importance of an automotive culture that engages every arena in which automobiles play a role. His ability to serve as the auto consumer’s advocate-in-chief, not only serves Edmunds’ mission and image well, it helps cement the consumer power that launched his company to prominence.
But Edmunds’ rise, from booklet printer to market-making, policy-influencing juggernaut, has not gone unnoticed. Numerous companies have tried to match its success and compete for its influence, but few have given it any real trouble. The simple fact is that Edmunds has been working at its mission so long, and has been so in tune with cultural and technological shifts, that any rival would have to make enormous investments in order to match its suite of services and aura of leadership. And yet, in just a few short years, one company has managed to break through Edmunds’ near-monopoly, and join it as the second Southern Californian juggernaut of automotive consumer services. That company is TrueCar.
The short roots of TrueCar’s stunning rise to prominence lead back to Edmunds. Formed by a core of Edmunds employees, TrueCar grew out of just one element of Edmunds’ sweeping empire: the “True Market Value” pricing tool. While the larger site spread its resources across an entire ecosystem of consumer information and advocacy, TrueCar’s mission was laser-focused on creating the best real-time pricing tool on the web. By investing in every possible source of data on new car sales, and by developing a slick, intuitive interface focused solely on delivering localized market price transparency, TrueCar has been able to claw out a niche in one of the most lucrative automotive consumer services. And though Edmunds downplays comparisons with TrueCar, it’s clear that the upstart firm has established itself as a major player.
TrueCar’s more focused culture is evident in its almost zen-like offices high atop Santa Monica’s historic clock tower. In sharp contrast to Edmunds’ primary colors, copious espresso machines and young employees blowing off steam at the company pinball machine, TrueCar’s headquarters are smaller, less self-conscious, and a more obviously-focused workplace. Not that TrueCar couldn’t have a vast Google-like complex if it wanted: just last year, in the depths of of the economic downturn, the company brought in a $200 million round of investment. But, as CEO Scott Painter explains, TrueCar’s spends its millions largely on acquiring and analyzing pricing data. Where Edmunds seeks to offer a complete research and shopping experience, Painter refuses to break focus on pricing until total market transparency is achieved.
But where Edmunds’ broader focus has allowed it to assume the mantle of consumer advocate in a generally non-confrontational manner, TrueCar’s narrower but deeper approach to serving consumers has ruffled feathers among dealers and manufacturers. For an industry long used to consumers overwhelmed by the vast variety of brands, models and trim levels, and for dealers who have long relied on asymmetrical information to pad their profits, TrueCar’s crusade for pricing transparency has tipped the balance of power so far towards consumers as to be seen as a threat.
Towards the end of 2011, TrueCar, falling victim to its own success, came into conflict with dealer groups, manufacturer “dealer marketing allowance” schemes, and state regulators tasked with protecting local franchise laws. In the wake of that confrontation, TrueCar has had to make some specific changes in how it operates its business, but the industry’s reaction showed that TrueCar’s mission to deliver real pricing transparency was changing the way automotive retail works. And as Detroit has proved over the last 40 years, businesses who cling to a comfortable past in the face of inexorable historic forces get left behind.
Though Edmunds and TrueCar eye each other warily, and though there is certainly some overlap in their business models, they aren’t really competitors. Together, they form the vanguard of a movement to use information to empower consumers, and I would argue that a consumer that wants to make the most of this new movement would use Edmunds to help decide what kind of automobile might suit them best, and use TrueCar to help price and negotiate for it once that decision has been made.
Competition between the two will make both better, which in turn will arm consumers with ever-greater power in the marketplace. In this way, the two behemoths of online car buying services will continue to strip power from the automakers, force them to pay closer attention to consumers, and drive the innovations that will allow producers to more efficiently serve an increasingly-informed market. And as this dynamic plays out, the producers and marketers of Detroit and elsewhere will have no choice but to recognize the rise of America’s new Motor City in sunny Southern California.
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