Big things, as T.E. Lawrence famously put it, have small beginnings. Nowhere is that more true than in the auto industry, where massive scale amplifies the risk of any major change. From a tech sector perspective the auto industry often comes across as simply being slow-paced and conservative due to incumbent status alone, but the reality of transforming capital-intensive manufacturing plants, globe-spanning supply chains, and highly competitive markets is often wildly underestimated... as are the massive penalties for getting things wrong.
So rather than flipping a switch and transforming a major automaker's business overnight, the smart approach is to start with small-scale experiments to find out what parts of the future of cars are ready to work and which aren't. Not only does this reduce the massive risks involved with jumping headlong into still-developing markets, it builds experience and knowledge that will serve the company well as the transition accelerates. As popular as it's become to make wild-eyed predictions of overnight transformations of the auto industry, we'll know when big things are coming because we'll see small things starting to succeed.
This seems to be the philosophy behind Polestar, a new all-electric vehicle company that has grown out of Volvo's racing and performance tuning brand. If Volvo is the broader Geely Group's flagship brand, as well as the source of much of the group's technological and design leadership, Polestar is the tip of the spear. By experimenting with new technologies and business models at low volume, Polestar can validate intriguing new opportunities with minimal risk and then spread them throughout the sprawling Geely Group as they come into their own.
On the most obvious level, Polestar is about building a business around electric drivetrains and tapping into the market for high-tech premium EVs that Tesla has proven can be both lucrative and a source of positive PR. Though the brand's all-electric status was a bit muddied by the decision to launch with the plug-in hybrid Polestar 1 coupe, the forthcoming Polestar 2 is a premium electric sedan aimed directly at the higher-end versions of Tesla's Model 3 and every subsequent car from the brand will be pure electric. Up next will be an electric crossover called Polestar 3, possibly based on the next-generation Volvo XC90's underpinnings.
One part of Polestar 2's mission is simply discovering where premium EV buyers are concentrated, using Tesla-style pre-orders to determine where to invest in sales and support infrastructure. Keeping with its small and nimble concept Polestar currently plans on launching with five "Polestar Space" showrooms in select major US metropolises and three in Canada, which will be small, stylish stores free from commissioned salespeople but still franchised like a traditional dealer. This footprint will be supported by selected Volvo dealers who will provide service remotely, with vehicles picked up and dropped off for customers so they never have to set foot in a service center. All vehicles will be built-to-order, with delivery from the firm's Chengdu, China factory taking 8 to 10 weeks, and Polestar is looking at subscription models that could include insurance as well as maintenance.
Though clearly inspired by Tesla in many ways, Polestar's limited footprint means it won't be dumping millions into a dedicated charging infrastructure to rival the Supercharger network. The Polestar 2's 78 kWh battery can be recharged with both AC and DC power, with the latter option capable of speeds of up to 150 kW, and the company says it is "setting up strategic collaborations to give Polestar 2 owners easy and hassle-free access to the world’s largest public charging networks." The Polestar 2's ability to use those charging networks effectively comes from another unique feature: a native Google Maps integration that aggregates available chargers, displays the predicted state of charge at any destination you choose, and suggests nearby charging options when needed.
This intriguing new feature is available thanks to the fact that the Polestar's 11 inch center stack infotainment system is the first to be built on Google's just-announced Android Automotive OS. Rather than mirroring your phone on an OEM infotainment system Like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, the Polestar 2 is effectively its own Android device with features and a UI tailored to the car's functionality and brand. So not only is Google Maps tapped into your battery state of charge and reskinned to fit the Polestar 2's aesthetics, Google Assistant voice control will be able to control functionalities beyond the infotainment system
This also means the holy grail of "car as a mobile device" technology (that Elon Musk said was coming to Tesla back in 2009) is actually here: independent developers writing apps for your car. Like Polestar, this new platform is starting small. Google has only approved media apps for now, with options like Spotify, I Heart Radio,, NPR and Google Play Audiobooks currently available. But Google plans to approve not only more media apps over time, but also new categories of apps like communication, navigation and others. Things like video streaming definitely won't be available while the car is in motion, but Google is still working out what apps to allow under what circumstances, drawing on its OEM partnerships, academic researchers, its own horde of data from Android Auto users and even in-house simulator testing.
This is the kind of stuff that has seemed like the future of cars for a long time, but there is still much to work out. For example, it's not entirely clear how Polestar will price connectivity for the 2, although they do say that you'll be able to connect the car to your phone's mobile hotspot and that basic functionality will work with no connection at all. Certainly, the potential for added distraction from center console apps is real and drawing lines between safe and unsafe scenarios will be challenging and potentially controversial. Polestar isn't even sure how many 2s it's going to be able to sell, saying only that it expects volume to be in the tens of thousands and that there is no ambition to match the mainstream volume ambitions Tesla has for its Model 3.
In other words, the Polestar 2 is an experiment. An experiment whose results will clarify massive questions about true EV demand, the need for charging infrastructure, the viability of moving away from the traditional dealership and whether the advantages of signing over the center console to Google is worth the shortcomings. People have opinions about what the future of cars will be, but if you're going to invest billions into transforming your global business you need more than opinions... you need evidence. Polestar won't ever be a mass-market volume monster, but it will provide valuable insights into what elements of the future of cars are actually ready to go mainstream and which aren't.
And, if the Polestar 2 is anything to go by, it will look good doing it.