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Emerging markets and high-tech drive auto industry change

The sky's the limit as automakers shift into technological overdrive

Members from Toyota Motor and other people work on a prototype of a flying car. (Photo by Masayuki Kozono)

TOKYO The global automobile market is changing, with old industry models being junked as manufacturers open their doors to new technologies and ways of doing business.

Toyota Motor, one of the more conservative majors, is aware of this trend and altering its approach. Recognizing the convergence of advanced and emerging markets, the company rolled its two regional planning and sales units into one. The move came only three years after the two region-based business units -- one for North America, Europe and Japan and the other for the rest of the world -- were created in April 2013.

Explaining the reason for the organizational change, a Toyota official said: "Asian emerging countries are moving to tighten environmental regulations, increasingly bringing their levels on a par with advanced countries. As a result, regional differences have blurred, so we see little value in running separate units."

Meanwhile, emerging countries are claiming an increased share of the global automotive market. In 2015, for example, China surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest electric car market.

New, sophisticated technologies are also playing a transformational role. As vehicles become increasingly reliant on electronics, it's only natural that these advances would eventually migrate to the auto industry. Self-driving cars and car-sharing systems are dependent on technologies that are only just coming into their own, as are the ride-hailing apps that are popular in Southeast Asia.

Chinese internet company Baidu sees the writing on the wall, announcing in April that it will provide an open software platform for car manufacturers to help speed development of self-driving vehicles.

DIFFERENT GAME When technology arrives at a major crossroad, newcomers often replace established players. In 2007, when Apple's iPhone was introduced, the global mobile phone market was dominated by Finland's Nokia and the U.S.'s Motorola. In less than a decade, however, South Korea's Samsung Electronics and Apple, as well as major Chinese manufacturers such as Huawei Technologies and BBK Electronics-owned Oppo, quickly grew into global leaders.

Some argue that the auto sector is immune to this kind of change, since its product development and sales cycles are different, and because the automobile industry places a premium on safety.

But even Toyota, known for its wait-and-see approach to new technology, is taking the rapid changes seriously. The company has gone so far as to help finance a flying car project that some of its young engineers have been working on.

Ever since Ford Motor's Model T appeared in 1908, automakers have been vying to outdo each other, with particular emphasis on improving performance, gas mileage and safety while reducing costs.

Today is no different. But because cars are so complex -- each contains about 30,000 parts -- those automakers with a track record of successful research and development and a large network of suppliers will have the edge. Deep pockets are also needed, as new types of cars require new or retooled production facilities. Only a limited number of companies in the U.S., Japan, Europe and South Korea have the know-how and resources to do this, making it difficult for newcomers to grab a piece of the action.

"We are in the midst of seeing more change in the next five years than we've seen in the last 50 years," General Motors CEO Mary Barra has often said.

Technological innovation will dramatically reshape the global automobile industry. Big auto is still in the driver's seat, but because of the nature of the change, there is still room for new companies to climb aboard.

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