The smartest people in the auto industry are spending billions to solve a problem that doesn’t exist

The success of Uber and Tesla and various charismatic alternatives to business-as-usual in the auto industry have prompted a lot of deep thinking about what traditional car makers should do to avoid being turned into road kill.

A decade ago, if you’d uttered the word “disruption” around auto executives, you’d have been greeted with blank stares.

Now, you don’t even have to do the uttering — the auto execs are more than happy to delve into how aggressively they’re trying to disrupt themselves.

Harvard Business School’s Michael L. Tushman calls this an “existential question” in a recent post at the Harvard Business Review:

I am an Uber enthusiast — the service is an easy and affordable way to get around. As a city dweller, the need to transport our dog is starting to feel like the only thing preventing me from ditching our station wagon. So it doesn’t surprise me that Uber’s bookings are said to have grown by more than 141% in the past year.

This shift is starting to pose an existential question for the automobile industry: What sort of cars will we need in 10 years? If the answer really is electric, autonomous ones, that will pose a huge challenge for an industry that has not fundamentally changed since the first Model T rolled off Henry Ford’s production line.

We know that GM or Toyota cannot just close down production of gasoline engine cars and transform themselves into Tesla. They have to compete just as hard as ever to sustain leadership in the markets that exist today, even as they figure out how to compete in the future.

It’s admirable that heavy-duty business thinkers are tackling this question, and tackling it now with urgency.

But I think they’re also falling prey to two tendencies at once: the need to formulate problems to solve — and then the need to solve them, in short order, or at least develop a strategic context in which the problem can be addressed in such a way that the traditional auto industry can defend itself.

The Big Question on which all this hinges is, “Will electric, self-driving cars arrive sooner than anyone expects?”

The Big Question isn’t, I should point out, “Will electric, self-driving cars arrive?” They will, inevitably. It’s merely a matter of time.

An unaddressed variable

But that’s the massive, unaddressed variable in the this discussion. How long will it take before the traditional business of the traditional automakers no longer works? Embedded in this time variable is a common business school assumption, which is that there’s no way the incumbent can fend off the disruptor, long term. General Motors and Toyota will be supplanted — we just don’t know how long it will take.

Frankly, the auto industry is taking this “existential question” far too seriously. There are over a billion cars currently roving planet Earth (and that’s just cars — I’m not even talking about big trucks and other types of non-passenger mobility). Even if a dozen Teslas and Ubers appear in the next ten years, it will be decades before all those largely gas-powered cars are displaced.

A hundred years of industrial history will be challenging to eradicate. Gas-powered cars are still a practical, affordable form of transportation. They are not the horse of the 20th century, lingering too long in the 21st.

So the existential question is really a marginal question. Everyone is simply trying to prepare for the tipping point, the moment at which it becomes absolutely clear that electric, self-driving cars will take over. Innovation is happening, and accelerating, but it’s at the margins. Uber still requires hundreds of thousands if not millions of good old-fashioned gas cars to even have a business. Tesla’s most optimistic sales numbers would give it only a small percentage of the global auto market by 2020.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with thinking about the impending change. But a more significant question these days is whether the auto industry is over-investing in a slow-motion self-disruption, driven more by cultural enthusiasm for new ideas than by facts on the ground.

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