"The world doesn't need another car brand."
If Lynk & Co turns out to be a success over the next few years, these will be its famous first words. They were uttered by Alain Visser, a 30-year auto industry veteran who has been charged with the task of creating a new car brand.
Lynk & Co has been spawned from the Volvo labs in Gothenburg, under the patronage of Chinese parent company Geely, though it’s a standalone brand that will have to prove its own merits. Visser and his team are on a publicity tour across Europe this week, endeavoring to convince the world of the fallacy of his opening proclamation. The world very much does need a new car company, because the ones we already have are stagnant, entrenched, and simply too arrogant to do things differently. I met with Visser in Berlin, and the impression he left on me was one of charming cynicism. As someone who’s been selling cars for three decades, he’s tired of doing the same old thing, and even while he accuses the rest of his industry of arrogance, he sets his team the immodest goal of reshaping and revolutionizing the entire market.
Starting off with the blank slate of a new brand, there is no established pedigree or customer goodwill for Lynk & Co to rely on. The only way for these guys to succeed is through innovation. Lynk must be better than the rest or it won’t be at all. I find that an exhilarating proposition, and I get the sense that the brand’s leadership team shares that sense of adventure and invigoration. Visser himself says that in all his time working across Ford, General Motors, and Volvo, he’s never seen this level of excitement around a new initiative.
Alongside Visser, there’s Volvo’s longtime design chief, Peter Horbury, and a leadership team composed of a mix of Volvo’s brightest talent and other deeply experienced designers and engineers from better known but less ambitious car companies. It turns out, as Horbury asserts, that you don’t have to do much convincing to sway car people to join a project to build something entirely from scratch.
The ambitions of Lynk & Co are stratospheric. This is the connected car that everyone keeps promising, except it’s not a concept for the distant future; it’s a real-world product that arrives next year. Here are the things the new brand wants to accomplish:
1. Direct-to-consumer distribution that cuts out dealerships entirely. You’ll get your car delivered to your door, and when it needs servicing it’ll be picked up from the same spot as well.
2. An app store for the car, with open APIs so all manner of users and developers can get involved.
3. Mobile apps to let you manage the car remotely and share it by distributing digital keys to family members or trusted friends.
4. A web interface for all of the above, which will include an online store with pared-down, fixed pricing tiers that eliminate the haggling involved in the typical car purchase.
Those are just the top-level items, above and beyond figuring out the basics of a smart in-car user interface, a cohesive and coherent design language that can scale across a full range of cars, and a way to deliver Volvo safety at more budget-friendly prices. I’m not actually optimistic about Lynk & Co’s prospects at all, but I also can’t discount the full-blooded belief and enthusiasm of such a strongly experienced team. The people working to make Lynk & Co a success are putting decades-long careers on the line, investing centuries of experience into doing something new. That’s the spirit of innovation.
The future Visser and his fellow Lynk developers envision is one "moving toward a model of usership rather than ownership." People increasingly want to have the use of a car more than the ownership of one. Use gives you function, ownership gives you responsibilities. Not everyone is of that mindset, of course, but the megacity urban dwellers that Lynk & Co is targeting with its first car, the aptly titled 01 SUV, fit that description very closely.
It’s all well and good talking about appealing to a young urban demographic, but I had to challenge Visser on the fact that neither he, nor Horbury, nor any of their distinguished colleagues were actually members of their target audience. In brute terms, they’re old people trying to figure out and build what young people want — and you can’t "think differently," as Geely wants Lynk & Co to do, with the same old mind. As a fellow cynic, Visser had foreseen this issue and was well prepared with an answer. Lynk & Co’s structure is such, he says, that it includes experienced "car people," but they’re only the most senior members of a team whose experience level stretches right down to young design interns with no previous work to show. The older members in Lynk & Co’s setup are there to help realize the ideas put forward by its younger contingent — which may be just feelgood talk, but it’s certainly the right way to approach a project like this, in my opinion.
So Lynk & Co is essentially a junior Volvo for the connected generation of not-so-wealthy city kids. It’s a brand that will try to make money in untraditional ways, including a subscription model that has yet to be fully detailed and explained. And as skeptical as I am about its chances of success, I’m delighted by the candor of its leaders and the brutally honest way in which they speak of their own industry.
"What we did today, at almost all car companies, if was a no-go area," said Visser after announcing the Lynk & Co 01. One of the primary reasons why his new venture is so unique is that it has no history and no dealership relations tying it down. Like a preexisting medical condition, a car company’s contracts with dealers usually act as a drag preventing it from exploring and exploiting new business models.
But new business models in the car industry are inevitable. Valve’s Steam game distribution service seemed impossible once, and many game publishers were shy to join it because of pressure from brick-and-mortar game retailers. And yet, here we are today, in an era when even the most over-specced gaming laptops don’t need an optical drive because everyone’s moved to buying games online. Music and movies are increasingly not even bought — they’re rented on streaming services like Spotify and Netflix.
The connected world is coming for cars, everyone in the industry is entirely conscious of that fact, but no one is doing anything bold about it. Visser says they’re all talking about and gesturing toward the connected car future, but its his company that has actually built a car entirely around the concept of connectivity first. He also admits to being disappointed to hear of Apple’s dramatically scaled down car efforts, which Lynk & Co can be interpreted as a parallel to. "Our car is a smartphone on wheels," he says.
The trouble with smartphones, however, is that they’re incredibly complex devices that require multidisciplinary expertise. You can reverse-engineer a car’s engine, suspension system, and other mechanical operations, but there’s no easy way to recreate the establishment of a thriving developer and app ecosystem, as Apple and Google have done, or to do great mobile UI without simply copying. These are the small but important aspects of Lynk & Co’s grand plan that keep me reluctant to get too excited about it. But setting realism aside for a moment, can we not simply celebrate a company that calls the car industry out for its complacency and then follows through on its words?
Lynk & Co has no safety net. It’ll either rise on the strength of its understanding of the modern mobile consumer or it will sink very rapidly. One last interesting tidbit that Visser revealed was that he felt relieved once the launch was over, because it meant his Chinese backers could no longer change their mind. So even internally, there’s full recognition of how lofty the Lynk & Co goals are. But having them all laid out in public now commits Geely and everyone else joined up with this project to follow through on it. "A lot of us have been hidden in a Chinese bunker for many years," said Visser. "Now we finally see the light of day again."