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Powersports — The road less traveled

By Gary Gustafson

Robert Frost once wrote, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." 

Author's note: In this edition of a new Theory Of Everything for the powersports industry – we explore a concept of promoting a lifestyle that is based in physical reality, with the digital world being secondary. This piece is not meant to be critical of any specific business or the utilization of technology, but merely something to provoke free thought and discussion.

When Apple launched the Mac, the company produced the iconic “1984” commercial portraying Apple as a maverick throwing a hammer of defiance into the on-screen face of a ruler commanding mass conformance. In a grand twist of irony, Silicon Valley now appears to be the giant voice demanding conformance, whether it be in expressing public opinion or reaching customers en masse. Powersports brands that offend anyone’s sensibilities could be just one Twitter campaign or Amazon ban away from suffering huge losses. Virtual reality could roll right over everything we do like a tsunami. Then there’s artificial intelligence. Elon Musk … Elon Musk … told attendees at a National Governors Association meeting: “I have exposure to the very cutting edge AI, and I think people should be really concerned about it. I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react, because it seems so ethereal.” Granted, the AI he was referencing is dramatic, but still just another tentacle in the technology octopus that is growing by the day.

It’s again time for someone to throw a hammer of defiance into the big screen, and we’re just the ones to do it. While the majority of people will no doubt continue to become more and more enmeshed with mobile technology, virtual reality and the like, others are going to consciously choose to live life in the physical world, using tech but not being owned by it. Some will go out of their ways to avoid connectedness altogether, or at least as much as possible. They will take the road less traveled. We, as an industry, will be one of the last bastions for free spirits looking to escape what they see as a digital confinement — because powersports is physical and elemental, not pixels and plastic. Powersports is an expression of the untamed human spirit, that freedom given by the creator to “fill the earth and subdue it."

At the upcoming AIMExpo, industry leaders Scott Wine and Matt Levatich are going to address ways to grow a new generation of riders, and it can’t come soon enough. Not just for our industry, but for the youth themselves. Studies are finally beginning to emerge on the effects of too much “connectedness” on children. Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, refers to devices with screens as “electronic cocaine.” Dr. Andrew Doan, the head of addiction research for the Pentagon and the U.S. Navy also refers to video games as something like digital drugs. Author Cris Rowan states: “One third of North American children enter school developmentally delayed, and child obesity is now a national epidemic. One in six children has a diagnosed mental illness, with child aggression and unmanageable behavior increasingly the norm. One in six children cannot pay attention and require learning assistance.” She states that emerging science proves electronic entertainment and connectivity is a major factor driving these developmental issues. Having grown up believing they have hundreds of friends on their phone, they do not grasp key concepts about interaction with their physical environment including other live human beings. A line needs to be drawn, and what our industry does can help with re-establishing healthy norms.

It doesn’t take a genius to jump on the mobile bandwagon, but it might be ingenious to jump off it, or at least keep it at arm's length. Overall, mobile technology is undermining the percentage of those who participate in powersports and undermining the ability of those who have brick and mortar presences at a local level to make a living at it. This has nothing to do with manufacturing technologies, design tools, GPS navigation systems and CRM solutions – all of which are clearly improving efficiencies for our businesses. Virtual reality and the online culture in general are another matter.

Our society is approaching a fork in the road where folks will have to begin choosing to live life in physical reality or succumb, if you will, to varying degrees of virtual reality. Social media, gaming and everything else done on a screen are merely the precursors to immersive VR. Based on current trends, clearly the virtual reality side will dominate. This is no cycle; this an epoch. A highly simplified futurist analysis looks like an overlapping two-circle Venn Diagram with those who live much of their life in virtual reality grouped in the far left semi-circle. This group will eventually be regulated somewhat by artificial intelligence and sustained by a minimum income that precludes large discretionary purchases. On the far right (visually) is a semi-circle of those who might choose jobs like being welders and stone masons, rip it up on 4-wheelers, burn firewood and perhaps hunt. In the middle is a large crossover group who live somewhere in between – in fact it’s where most people are today. This is the populace whose loyalties will be the most hotly contested. The crossover group may use mobile tech, tolerate AI and participate in some VR without completely immersing themselves in these technologies, however this centrist group will feel a continuous pull toward connectedness as all of the economy and society itself moves toward it. The big question is, how does the flood of tech into every area of existence bode for the future? How many will be living in essentially full VR and therefore have zero chance to be a part of ours, or anything resembling a traditional way of life? Will those in the crossover group still be enticed to ride? For that matter – how many brick-and-mortar businesses will be left to support the sport? We need to plant a flag firmly in the dirt, asphalt, brick and mortar.

A withering backlash to taking such a stand is a given. Mobile this, Amazon that, you can’t reach the kids without it, yada, yada, yada. These concerns are legitimate and digital is obviously going to always be part of our lives and businesses. I was an early adopter of electronic connectivity. I started researching GPS for off-road vehicles on my own initiative at Polaris in the late 1990s and have stayed involved on the cutting edge of navigation and general connectedness to this day. I promote technology products regularly. I appreciate that modern vehicles are technological marvels.

In an upcoming Theory Of Everything blog we will analyze leveraging mobile technology on a grander scale than ever before. But…want to know why no one’s going into dealerships? Because their phone isn’t leading them there. Why can’t dealerships hire enough service department staff? Because “tools” are a native phone app, not wrenches and screwdrivers. Why do customers dodge sales staff? Because they are just there to check fit before ordering online. Why aren’t kids riding ATVs and Dirt Bikes? That’s obvious. They’ve been trained that they can’t do anything unless it involves a screen. At the fundamental level, mobile can become a “deal with the devil” and Immersive Virtual Reality could be much worse. As Immersive Virtual Reality develops it could have so much of the population on lockdown they might as well include a dialysis service with each purchase. I preach VR as a dealership tool, but VR could also replace many activities as we know them. If someone can ride the Isle of Man in 360 VR with a cybermodel holding him tight while having a shootout with space aliens all in the comfort of Mom’s basement, how will you get them to: A. Earn money to buy an entry-level bike (no supermodel included) and B. Get out and face the gritty realities of their local riding area?

Therefore, in our promotion of physical reality we can remind people that it feels great to be human, even with our blemishes. It’s empowering to get your hands dirty doing maintenance on an ATV. True connectedness is feeling the wind in your face, seeing your family members smile, and picking a bug out of your beard once in a while. Freedom is stopping to eat somewhere along the way simply because it looks interesting, not because Yelp recommended it. You can walk into a brick and mortar dealership and be content with your accessory or service part purchase. You can pay cash. You don’t need to snap and post, either. Your brain has more memory than all your mobile devices combined, and it’s there to be filled with spontaneous, crazy/beautiful moments experienced in the real world. Riders can share their stories with others in person -- like real friends do. The Internet of Things, AI and VR can each be beneficial when harnessed. However for powersports to have a sustainable future it must remain part of a bulwark allowing individuals freedom to pursue their physical and spiritual identities, not just their digital ones. Who knows, with this vision for the future maybe we could become part of a greater movement.

Gary Gustafson is president of G-Force Consulting Inc. of Clear Lake, Minnesota. He develops business cases, product launches and OEM accounts for new powersports product entries and has components in current production on vehicles and in accessory catalogs across the industry. Learn more at www.marketresearch.motorcycles and www.gforceconsulting.com.

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2 comments

  1. Great Piece Gary and at least in my opinion spot on. While VR can trick the mind into the sense of reality and movement, it cannot recreate the physical. The sensory experience of riding is both mental and physical and in a world where I recently heard two kids sitting outside of a basketball gym telling each other how "cool' playing VR basketball was rather than dribbling down the court it is worrisome. Thank you for this well written piece.

    • First Name: Timothy
    • Last Name: Calhoun
    • Email Address: tcalhoun@speedmob.com

    [Reply]

  2. Thank you, Tim. I wanted to spark some discussion with this blog.

    • First Name: Gary
    • Last Name: Gustafson
    • Email Address: gforcegary@gmail.com

    [Reply]

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