James Kotecki (00:08):
This is CES Tech Talk. I'm James Kotecki, bringing you an interview that I recorded live at the C Space Studio at CES 2023. Enjoy.
Welcome back. You're in the C Space Studio, sponsored by Salesforce. I'm James Kotecki here at CES 2023, joined by MotorTrend President, Alex Wellen. Thanks so much for joining us here today.
Alex Wellen (00:32):
Thank you, James.
James Kotecki (00:33):
All right. MotorTrend, it's all about cars. It's very exciting. Can you first snapshot for us the scope of the MotorTrend brands, the assets under that umbrella?
Alex Wellen (00:42):
Yeah, of course. I mean, I think MotorTrend, most people know the magazine, they know Car of the Year, but it's actually a global, multimedia organization. We have TV networks, we have direct-to-consumer, we have now FAST, we have a studio. We're on a number of other platforms, including our website. So it's a big platform that reaches about 26 million unique users every single month.
James Kotecki (01:06):
Let me start with a philosophical curve-ball question. What is a car in 2023?
Alex Wellen (01:10):
Yeah. MotorTrend, thankfully, is not called Internal Combustion Engine Trend.
James Kotecki (01:17):
Alex Wellen (01:18):
Right? So our founder, Robert Petersen, had the foresight to call it MotorTrend. And so I think, at this CES in particular, I think your question is apropos, because it feels more software-defined than hardware-defined than ever before.
We know things are autonomous, we know things are going to be EV, but it does feel more and more like a chassis with maybe some batteries, a great design, and performance, and software defining what it is and what it's not. So I think it's a tricky question, and it doesn't necessarily mean driving either. Right?
James Kotecki (01:56):
Let's put legislative and regulatory things aside, just in terms of what consumers want. Is there any appetite in the long term for an internal combustion engine on certain brands? Do some people still want that feeling of revving a gas powered engine and smelling those fumes?
Alex Wellen (02:10):
Oh, of course. I mean, I don't know about the smelling the fumes, but I definitely think that internal combustion engines will be here for a long time. Yes, there will be limitations to how many cars you can have, and when you can use them, and what the risk is to the environment, and sustainability.
But for the most part, EV, it will just overtake so much of it. But ultimately, I think, there's a great place for the freedom that comes with an internal combustion engine, the sounds and the visceral effects. And you even see that sometimes with some of the EVs.
James Kotecki (02:40):
Sure. You can replicate some of that electronically.
Alex Wellen (02:43):
James Kotecki (02:43):
How do you see the role of MotorTrend in this ecosystem? When you think about the role that you're playing, the work that you're doing, do you think of yourselves as a watchdog, as a cheerleader, as an analyst? How do you see yourselves?
Alex Wellen (02:54):
Yeah. Our editor-in-chief always says that we're rooting for the cars. We really are rooting for the cars. We know that so many of us are defined by the cars that we grew up on. It's the cars our parents had, our first car, or a car that we saw in a film. What was your first car?
James Kotecki (03:11):
It was a Toyota Camry, probably.
Alex Wellen (03:12):
Right. So Toyota Camry. And now what do you drive? Do you mind saying?
James Kotecki (03:15):
Yeah. A Tesla.
Alex Wellen (03:15):
Okay. So those two things. I could probably tell you so many things about your world.
James Kotecki (03:19):
I know I almost feel like I'm-
Alex Wellen (03:20):
It's a window into your-
James Kotecki (03:21):
... having an intimate moment right now.
Alex Wellen (03:21):
I know. I'm not supposed to ask that question.
James Kotecki (03:22):
I'm revealing too much about myself.
Alex Wellen (03:23):
That's right. But it is a window into our soul. It really does define what we do. So I think you asked the question about MotorTrend. I think there's a few things that we need to do and that we continue to do.
I think, one, if we're rooting for the cars, and we're looking in through the lens of the cars, one is we have to help people buy cars. Very confusing time. Right? So demystifying that, making it accessible is really important.
And the second is we need to entertain. We do the preeminent, largest library of all automotive content from "Roadkill", to "Top Gear", to a whole bunch of different programs that we have. We have a new animated show coming out this year. And so I think we got to entertain. We have to embrace the joy that is the joy ride, and then also help people get in a car that makes them feel good, and feel safe, and feel connected.
James Kotecki (04:08):
And what do you think consumers, as you look at these trends, what do consumers want to feel in 2023? Obviously everybody's different. Everybody's going to choose a different vehicle. Well, where do you see the trends going in terms of what people are actually demanding?
Alex Wellen (04:20):
I think many people want to be in an EV ultimately, and they're very concerned about whether there's range anxiety, and where they will charge, and what the costs will be, and whether it will perform as well. So I think that's certainly where things are going.
There's definitely a segment of people, who we talked about earlier, are not getting their license that want to be a pod person, they're jump in the car and jump out of the car, or they want to be a certain type of person for a weekend so they can rent a particular car. So I think that level of flexibility.
But I do think many, many people want to be in an EV right now and are very, very concerned about how to find the right EV. And I think we have a great opportunity at MotorTrend to help make it super clear as to what are the considerations set, who's winning in this race, and where will the range be, and ultimately in the next couple of years for those cars.
James Kotecki (05:13):
CES is increasingly becoming a car show. You and I talked about that just before this interview, and that's not the first time I've heard those comments this year.
Alex Wellen (05:21):
Yeah, they're changing the C in CES to car, I heard. So, yeah.
James Kotecki (05:25):
I'm not sure that's an official thing we can say here, but-
Alex Wellen (05:27):
No, that's right. Well, I think you should consider it.
James Kotecki (05:28):
But conceptually-
Alex Wellen (05:29):
Thank you.
James Kotecki (05:30):
... conceptually that feels right. So how does the future of mobility there tie into some of the other mobility futures that we see here at CES? We recently had someone here from Brunswick talking about the future of boating. Obviously they take some lessons from connected cars and electrification, EV tolls, autonomous flying drones, things that are looking like helicopters that people can fly around in, personalized flying cars, whatever it is. Do you see MotorTrend as part of a connection to all of that? Are you strictly focused on four wheels on the road? How do you see that?
Alex Wellen (06:03):
I think MotorTrend obviously having the word motor and trend in the title, and we have many other brands too, by the way. We have Hot Rod, and Lowrider, and Automobile, and Super Street, and a number of other brands that celebrate all kinds of different categories.
But for new cars, or recently new cars, I think that first and foremost, we have to get the car right, because the car is changing so much right now too. Ultimately, there will be motors in almost everything that you described. And I think that we can be an expert on helping people understand where they fit in.
I think the themes are as follows, one, autonomy. Right? To the extent it's a drone or a car. To what extent do you want to drive or not, remotely or in the car itself?
And then I think there's this notion of power, and what does power mean? Is it internal combustion, in the classic ways that we use energy, or is it really EV? Have you driven an EV? You have a Tesla, right?
James Kotecki (06:44):
Alex Wellen (06:54):
So you know it is a transformative event.
James Kotecki (06:57):
Feels very different.
Alex Wellen (06:57):
And you really have to do it to understand where things are going. But I'm so excited that... To be in media, to be in automotive in 2023, I mean, we are the luckiest people at MotorTrend right now to be able to be at that intersection. And that disruption is either an opportunity or something that scares us, and we do-
James Kotecki (07:17):
Two rapidly changing businesses.
Alex Wellen (07:18):
Exactly. And we embrace that.
James Kotecki (07:20):
So you are a content business, you're a media business. Do you see certain content consumption trends that you're trying to play to or steer into right now at the beginning of the year?
Alex Wellen (07:29):
Yeah. Well, I think it's not lost on anyone that we've seen the direct-to-consumer side get consolidated. So there are a lot of SVOD services, subscription services, where people have hit a fatigue. So we're getting back to an advertising-supported world where people will take better, more targeted ads, but will take ads, and don't necessarily assume they can just binge everything with no ads.
So one of the big things that we've seen is that the growth on FAST, and there aren't a lot of automotive services there, that we're already seeing, after launching a couple of months now, high consumption on that platform. Because people love to watch our programming and haven't had it available, because it's behind a paywall on TV or digital. So that's exciting.
I think on short form, if you're on TikTok or YouTube Shorts, there are people doing great reviews right now who get access to these cars, but they don't necessarily have the same credibility or the access that we do. So we need to talk to those audiences in the ways they're accustomed. So since we get the first drives and the first comparisons, and we're able to do that with great talent, and we need to do it in the most entertaining way in short form content, one minute segments, two minute segments, that really get you there quickly.
James Kotecki (08:37):
And what's your take on when people are going to be able to stream all this content in the driver's seat of their autonomous vehicle, because they don't actually have to drive? We've talked about autonomous driving at CES for many years now, which has stayed on the current actual reality of where that is and where that's going.
Alex Wellen (08:52):
I think it was Bill Gates who made that quote about things happen much slower over the course of a certain small amount of time, but then happen very quickly over the course of three or four, five years. I think we have some really big leaps to make on autonomous. But I think when you and I meet and talk about this five years from now, people will be seeing lots and lots of trucks driving around with no one in them on the highway.
James Kotecki (09:18):
Industrial applications.
Alex Wellen (09:19):
Industrial applications. I think we'll start seeing the Ubers and the Lyfts of the world picking you up and no one inside the car. And those things seem so strange and alien to us now, but they'll be very customary, and they'll be very safe.
James Kotecki (09:32):
And do you get a sense of, and maybe this is just individualized to each person, but how quickly that switch flips from this is the most novel and scary thing in the world to boring?
Alex Wellen (09:42):
I think you could look at COVID. I think you could look at the pandemic. When we were approaching it in the very beginning, we were hoping and praying it would be short lived. It ended up going for two years. We never thought we'd ever be back here at CES together as we are, and we are.
So I think you will see it happen very quickly. It's just going to take another couple of years to get the regulations right and the safety. But we know for a fact that autonomous driving is safer than actually someone behind the wheel. I think the question becomes when do we get that critical mass. And critical mass is not only people, but the more cars that are autonomous on the road, the safer it is as well.
James Kotecki (10:18):
Right. You have a background as a litigation attorney, I believe.
Alex Wellen (10:21):
I was an engineer and then I was, yes, I did law for a couple of years as well.
James Kotecki (10:25):
Does that shape the way that you think about business?
Alex Wellen (10:29):
Well, I'm always looking at the risk. It's funny you say that. I think litigation was really interesting because it enabled me to be a great advocate for whoever I was representing. But I'm not risk adverse. I think one of the things about being an attorney was that I was always consultative with our clients about the risks and they had to make the call.
Now I'm in a position where I know the risks, and we have to make those calls, and we have to take those risks. And so I've gotten much less conservative. And so I think we take big chances. It was a big chance to go on FAST. It's a big chance to expand our platform beyond magazines. This is something that's been around for 75 years next year. And so we have to stretch that brand and do things that we're uncomfortable with.
James Kotecki (11:14):
Well, thanks so much for sharing some of your time with us here, Alex Wellen, MotorTrend. We really appreciate it.
Alex Wellen (11:18):
Yeah, well thank you so much, James. I appreciate it.
James Kotecki (11:21):
Well, I hope you enjoyed that live conversation from CES 2023. Look up the CES C Space Studio for more conversations like that and get even more CES at ces.tech. That's C-E-S dot T-E-C-H. And of course, please subscribe to this podcast so you don't miss a moment. I'm James Kotecki talking tech on CES Tech Talk.