10 Founders That Automotive Junkies Should Know

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

#Quality    #Automotive    #innovation

There have been previous lists of famous automotive founders including one earlier this year by Newsweek, but typically these delineations leave the reader wondering, “Does this snoozer collection just consider the ancient history of sheet-metal-focused revenue and brands?” instead of pushing our understanding of the industry. Who really changed the course of one of the largest industries in modern times? Yes, those history-book lists include impactful folks like Henry Ford, the Dodge brothers, Ferdinand Porsche and Chung Ju-yung – all great businessmen, mind you – but not today’s future-shapers that make the curious mind wonder how the world would be different without them akin to George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life.


So this list below was driven by inventors who haven’t previously appeared in such delineations and yet helped redefine the industry in differentiating ways. Each section includes the company or non-profit that he helped grow, its differentiation that greatly impacted the industry, an interesting fact about the inventor and a thought-provoking quote from said creator.

10. Pierre Omidyar (1967 – present)

· Company: eBay

· Differentiation: Forever changed customer-to-customer (C2C) and business-to-customer (B2C) sales of especially-but-not-exclusively used vehicles and parts. eBay Motors revenue is now estimated at about $11.7B (2021), which included $8.2B from resellers exclusive to eBay.

· Interesting Fact: Forbes ranked Omidyar as the 83rd richest person in the world in 2021 ($21.8B in estimated net worth)

9. Sven Wingqvist (1876 – 1953)

· Company: SKF and Volvo

· Differentiation: Wingqvist founded SKF, which originally created Volvo Group, the inventing company of arguably the greatest safety tech of all-time: the seatbelt. Volvo so recognized the seatbelt’s potential that it left the patent open for all companies to use.

· Interesting Fact: Wingqvist made most of his fortune from designing ball bearings and once discovered the root cause of his employer’s frequent quality failures as the clay upon which the factory was built.

· Quote: “Thorough studies are better than relying on flashes of genius.”

8. Chet Huber (1958 – present)

· Company: OnStar (1995; wholly-owned subsidiary of General Motors)

· Differentiation: Created the segment of the “connected car” via airbags, Global Positioning System (GPS), offboard computers and a cellular connection. Long before competitors, OnStar was uploading data from the vehicle to inform safety and quality as well as downloading software updates, fixes and features.

· Interesting Fact: Huber was a locomotive salesman for General Motors and now is a Senior Lecturer for Harvard Business School; OnStar is a written and taught case study at the Harvard Business School.

· Quote: “We evolved the [telematics] business not by doing everything the technology can do. But our judgment told us to let our customers tell us what they wanted.”

7. William S. Harley (1880 – 1943) and the Davidson Brothers

· Company: Harley Davidson

· Differentiation: Harley Davidson’s advanced loop-frame pattern and new, bigger engine transformed the motorized bicycle category into a new market of motorcycle designs.

· Interesting Fact: Harley Davidson was one of only two American motorcycle companies to survive The Great Depression

· Quote: “Life offers few guarantees, but generally the harder and longer you work, the more likely you will succeed.”

6. Ralph Nader (1934 – present)

· Company: Center for Automotive Safety (non-profit)

· Differentiation: Nader strongly influenced the future requirement for functional safety and quality within the auto industry via bestselling books and advocacy groups. Deaths per billion Vehicle Mile Traveled (VMT) rose in the years prior to his best-known book, Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), and have declined nearly 80% since then.

· Interesting Fact: Nader’s nearly three million Green Party votes in the 2000 Presidential election probably assisted George W. Bush (R) in sneaking past Al Gore (D).

· Quote: “We must strive to become good ancestors.”



5. Elon Musk (1971 – present)

· Company: Tesla

· Differentiation: Tesla popularized automatic driving features (albeit denying ‘Full Self Driving’ is autonomous) and pushed the industry towards post-sale cybersecurity and software updates. Per the VisualCapitalist’s 2021 Most Valuable Brands, Tesla’s brand had the highest worth ($42.6B) of any transportation company and was ranked #47 of all companies regardless of industry.

· Interesting Fact: Musk moved from South Africa to Canada at age 17 supposedly to avoid compulsory enlistment in the armed forces.

· Quote: “If you’re not failing, you are not innovating enough.”


4. Garrett Camp (1978 – present) and Travis Kalanick (1976 – present)

· Company: Uber

· Differentiation: Created and popularized the entire market segment of ridehailing or ridesharing such that the populous uses their brand’s name as an interchangeable synonym with the actual product akin to Klennex® and Xerox®  versus tissue and copy.

· Interesting Fact: Camp has pledged to give away half of his wealth to charity.

· Quote: “I definitely see a correlation between how many things a company gets right and how fast it grows.”


3. Satoshi Nakamoto (2008 — present)

· Company: Not applicable

· Differentiation: Under the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto”, developers released a whitepaper detailing a model for blockchain technology, which is the underpinning of many worldwide record-keeping systems (e.g., Bitcoin since 2009) and will revolutionize automotive financial transactions, telematics and cybersecurity. If you want to list a single invention in the past 15 years that will have the greatest 21st century impact, blockchain could easily top that list since some believe, per The New York Times, that “… it might rewire the entire global financial network.”

· Interesting Fact: The real person behind Nakamoto’s pseudonym is believed to be one of the 30 richest people in the world at approximately $55B in net worth.

· Quote: “There’s still more work to do.” (Nakamoto’s last message in 2011)

2. John D. Rockefeller (1839 – 1937)

· Company: Standard Oil

· Differentiation: Standard Oil issued the patent for the process to convert oil to gasoline and was the largest oil refinery at the time it was broken up for being a monopoly (1911). This invention paved the way for the mass-market of gasoline-powered automobiles. Three of Standard Oil’s spinoffs are still in the top 100 companies by revenue: ExxonMobile (#13), Chevron (#37) and Marathon (#59).

· Interesting Fact: Rockefeller had two great ambitions: earn today’s equivalent of nearly $3M and live to 100 years; he eventually made nine times that and lived to 97.

· Quote: “I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity.”


1. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot

· Company: French Army Research (non-profit)

· Differentiation:  Albeit not gasoline, Cugnot invented the world's first full-size and somewhat-working self-propelled land-vehicle called the "Fardier à vapeur" (1769) that moved at 2mph and needed refueling every 15 minutes, but was mechanically propelled.

· Interesting Fact: Supposedly the second prototype vehicle is said to have accidentally hit a stationary object and, therein, is known as the first automobile accident (1771). 

· Quote: “Great list, Steve.” (OK, OK … maybe that was my quote.)

This article was originally published by Steve Tengler (steve.tengler@kuglermaag.com) on Forbes.com on February 10, 2022


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