Better Upon Reflection
They say “never go back”. Whoever ‘they’ are, they are wrong as Kevin Borras repeats the feat of coaxing the notoriously media-shy Manfred Swarovski, founder and owner of SWARCO into giving Thinking Highways another exclusive interview. So what has changed during the magazine’s first decade of existence?
‘He doesn’t often give interviews.’ The founder of SWARCO is ‘far too busy to talk to the press and has said all he needs to say.’ I was told this by a “third party” in November 2007, a week after I had spent the day in Manfred Swarovski’s company, an illuminating few hours of discussion from which I distilled one of my favourite interview articles. “A Man Walks Into A Bar…” (Thinking Highways Europe/Rest of the World, December 2007/January 2008), was full of fascinating anecdotes (not least about how he came to launch SWARCO and hence the rather odd headline for a business article), sharp insights and crystal clear thinking. Swarovski has not given an interview since. Perhaps he had said all he needed to say after all.
Fast forward to October 2015. It’s the ITS World Congress in Bordeaux and I am sharing a reassuringly strong coffee with SWARCO’s head of corporate communications and marketing, long-time associate of Thinking Highways, Richard Neumann. We are having a convivial discussion as usual and the subject of that original interview came up. “It would be great to interview Manfred again,” I say, more in hope than expectation. “So much of the landscape has changed in those eight years, it would be perfect to start our 10th Anniversary issues with something like that. What do you think the chances are?”
“I don’t know, he isn’t giving interviews these days” Richard told me with typical honesty. “But would you like me to ask Mr Swarovski the next time I see him?” I answered in the affirmative. Three weeks later I see an email from Richard Neumann in my inbox. It says simply “Please could you send me the questions for Mr Swarovski?” Again, I answered in the affirmative, still more in hope than in expectation. A flurry of emails and phone calls ensues. And then one final email on the subject from Richard just before Christmas:
“Mr Swarovski is happy to do it.”
A DISRUPTIVE DECADE
In the 10 years of Thinking Highways’ lifetime, the ITS sector has changed considerably as, it has to be said, has SWARCO. What does Swarovski believe has been the most significant technological development in that time?
“In my opinion the most significant technological development is the advent of big data retrieved from various sources and sensors and processed in the ‘cloud’. Crowdsourcing of data and the use of it to make traffic forecasts more precise thanks to the greater data granularity is a big asset in the reliability of information to the driving public, eventually improving road safety,” he enthuses.
“Another aspect contributing to emission reductions and energy efficiency is the widespread use of LED technology in traffic lights, variable message signs and street lighting. The conversion process to this advantageous light source started some 15 years ago and is now in full progress, due to the technological advances made by the LED manufacturers, European legal regulations and the positive effects LEDs have on the budgets of municipalities and road operators.”
Since my original visit to Wattens in 2007, SWARCO has also changed considerably, making a number of successful acquisitions across the industry spectrum, adding significantly to the company’s existing product line. I wondered how he saw the next 10 years of development progressing, particularly as he is less involved with the day-to-day running of the business.
“SWARCO has developed into a traffic technology corporation with probably the industry’s most comprehensive portfolio of products, systems, services and solutions. ITS solutions and road marking systems will remain the two pillars of our business, with potential of growing more and more together. Just think of autonomous cars that need good orientation and guidance provided by well-maintained road markings. The vehicle-to-infrastructure communication has led us to intensifying the cooperation with the automotive industry. We will continue to observe the market and look for acquisitions and partnerships that make a good fit for a sustainable development of the Group.”
One of my favourite anecdotes from the “A Man Walks Into A Bar” article was about his visit to China to confront a company that was attempting to pass off cheap (and dangerous) copies of SWARCO’s retroreflective road markings as an “official product”. The sheer audacity of the CEO in informing Swarovski that he was “great friends” with the founder of SWARCO when clearly not realizing that that was who he was talking to was as horrifying as it was amusing but has that situation been solved, or even addressed? Has China started to develop sustainable, viable and, more importantly, high quality alternatives to European manufacturing?
Says Manfred: “My impression is that China has made progress in terms of providing reasonable LED signalling and lighting solutions. The country is known as the ‘workbench’ of the world and used by many countries for component sourcing and mass production. However, in Europe the legal framework concerning the equipment of workplaces, safety and environmental respects as well as social welfare components are much more demanding, which has of course had an impact on the pricing and the competitiveness with China”. This is clearly still a subject that continues to irk him.
“I still have doubts about the quality of the products coming from China, especially in terms of sustainability, environmental friendliness, and conformity with the high European standards. As far as the sensitivity of Chinese companies towards copyrights is concerned, I cannot see a change in the mentality. Chinese companies continue to copy our website layouts, texts and picture materials without it playing on their conscience.”
IMPRESSING THE IMPRESARIO
Eight years ago we discussed how he foresaw the ITS industry progressing over the next decade – that decade is almost over so does he believe that the sector is as far advanced as he thought it might be? What have been the drivers behind this acceleration of technological breakthroughs?
“I think there has been made quite a lot of progress in software solutions, sensors, data processing and data linking,” he replies. “If you have a look at modern vehicles today, you will notice that a lot of safety features and communication devices have entered the car, turning them into rolling computers, interacting with the road infrastructure. Also traffic control centres today can rely on a much bigger data basis, coming from various sensors, cameras, weather stations, mobile phones, Bluetooth signals and floating car data. Nonetheless,” he adds with a word of warning, “it is still a challenge to use the multitude of collected data and make money out of it in viable business models.”
BACKWARDS AND FORWARDS
During the course of this year Thinking Highways will be regularly looking back over the course of the last 10 years, revisiting subjects and topics that have variously held our interests but in doing that it also makes sense to look forward in equal measure too. The advanced traffic management sector will undoubtedly be a quite radically different place in 2026 but will we still be awash with data that we can’t work out how to use? Will the sight of autonomous vehicles intermingling with human-piloted cars be commonplace on our roads? Swarovski isn’t so sure.
“V2I communication will have gained more ground in 10 years, although my impression is that developments in the ITS sector are naturally rather slow due to the amount of national and international legal regulations to respect, lack of harmonization of standards and of course new issues coming up with regard to privacy and data protection,” he suggests. “I hope the environmental friendliness of e-mobility will be something we can take for granted with a well-developed infrastructure and affordable vehicles. For me fuel cells producing electricity from hydrogen play a key role for the breakthrough of zero-emission mobility. What we also should not forget is that technological progress requires the acceptance of all age-groups in our society, especially elderly people. In view of the ageing population we have to dedicate more time to develop solutions that are user-friendly and easy to recognize also for those people whose visual faculty is degrading and whose reaction times are getting slower. Maybe autonomous driving can be an aid in making roads safer.”
Ah yes, autonomous vehicles. In 2007 the subject of driverless cars just didn’t come up. Now it’s almost impossible to have a conversation that doesn’t mention them, but Swarovski has reservations about just how far the current rate of progress has actually taken us. And he speaks as the owner of an electric car with an “hands free” option.
“The car industry, and I include companies not normally associated in this context, like Google – has demonstrated that autonomous driving works in highly standardised and closed environments. However, the technology still has to advance to deliver better results in the human-machine interaction and avoiding ambiguous driving situations,” says Swarovski. ”So far there is hardly any experience of what happens when vehicles with active drivers and autonomously driven vehicles travel on the same road. The legal aspects like ‘who is guilty in case of an accident?’, liability insurance, scenarios of man overruling machine and so on are far from being sorted out or harmonized. My new Tesla model is able to drive autonomously, but I still have mixed feelings when taking my hands off the steering wheel!”
It’s also worth noting at this juncture that Swarovski has done more than just talk about electric vehicles. In June 2015 he bought one of the initial batch of Hyundai ix35 FCEVs, the first mass-produced hydrogen vehicles in the world.
SPLITTING THE DIFFERENCE
When we launched Thinking Highways in 2006 we gave one of the reasons for publishing two distinct regional editions as being that the North American market was utterly different in approach to that of Europe, Asia, Australasia and Africa. At that time the EU and US worked almost entirely separately but since 2008 this situation has changed completely and there is far more international, cross-border and cross-continental cooperation – with SWARCO’s reputation and footprint increasing exponentially in North America, I wondered if Manfred Swarovski saw less of a difference now? Is it much easier for a European company to do business in North America, and vice versa?
“It is a fact that we still cannot speak of a harmonization of standards, norms and legal regulations. European standards are not accepted in the USA, that is why we have to go through lengthy homologation processes. These processes are even different from State to State and DOT to DOT. We also notice that learning processes we have gone through in Europe have to be redone in America, for instance with ITS harmonization, connected vehicle legal framework and so on. If you want to be successful in America, you have to act as an American company with local personnel and local value creation,” he says with the air of a man relieved not to be so closely entwined with intercontinental red tape. “On the other hand American companies face a very fragmented European market, with national regulations, a lot of national languages and big cultural differences.”
Talking of fragments, during the ITS World Congress there was a lot of chatter about the ITS market becoming increasingly fragmented and the event becoming too broad to satisfy everyone and that it was possibly time for a number of smaller, more focused congresses to be given consideration. Not an idea that has very much mileage with the grandson of Daniel Swarovski, founder of the family’s world famous crystal and cut glass empire.
“In general I am not in favour of having too many events and congresses over the year – and certainly not more. You could attend a congress every week in our industry if you wanted to. I also do not think that the ITS World Congress is becoming too broad. Many exhibition stands in Bordeaux were displaying the same headlines and topics like connectivity, Mobility as a Service, and so on. What is interesting is that shows like CEBIT in Hanover and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas now have more and more components you would normally find in traffic or automotive exhibitions.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Try and find a photograph of Manfred Swarovski in which he is not smiling – it’s not an act, not something he switches on and off for PR exercises. But there must be something dark behind that amiable frontage. Not everything in the Swarovski garden can be rosy. Can it? Is there, I wondered, one thing that has disappointed him over the last 10 years? Car manufacturers not embracing the ITS sector with quite the gusto they might have done? Delays to the mandatory implementation of eCall? That type of thing.
“Well, I would have thought that e-mobility would have advanced much more quickly than it has done so far. Also the use of hydrogen fuel cells to power the engines of electric vehicles and the spread of such cars on the market is something that has progressed quite slowly. The current low price of fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel is for clearly no driver in this respect,” he replies, somewhat circumspect. “However, market growth will shift from the developed countries to the developing countries. Central Asia, India, China, Africa and Latin America will move into the focus,” he adds on a more upbeat note. “In Europe for instance there is no longer such a strong wish to own a car since well-developed public transport systems are in place and new models like car-sharing are gaining ground. Silicon Valley in California will to my mind remain one of the driving forces in coming up with innovative ideas and solutions to influence and design the mobility of the 21st century.”
Perhaps not just Silicon Valley but the Lower Inn Valley of North Tyrol maybe? From the evidence presented by SWARCO and their genial founder, the future is crystal clear.