To Trinitron and Beyond

Man, oh, man. Can this really be happening? Over these many years, I have purchased all manner of excellent Sony products: radios, televisions, tape recorders, receivers, amplifiers, turntables, Betamax video recorders, CD players, DVD players, Blu-ray players, MiniDisc players, headphones, boomboxes, speakers, soundbars, videogame consoles, phones, camcorders, cameras — you name it. But will my next Sony purchase be…a car?

Yes, as you’ve probably heard, Sony has announced that it is exploring the idea of developing an electric vehicle. There is no shortage of companies, both legacy car makers and start-ups, scrambling to build EVs. Sony stands somewhere in the middle. While previously not a car maker, the company is certainly not a newcomer, having built quality products for almost 70 years.

As with other companies, Sony is probably looking at the global success, and valuation, of Tesla and wondering if the rewards of developing an EV far outweigh the risk. Throw in the global push from governments to incentivize EV sales, and the market potential is clear to see.

So, at CES 2022, Sony’s Chairman, President and CEO Kenichiro Yoshida announced the formation of an electric car division, called Sony Mobility Inc. Of course, any EV announcement must be accompanied by some eye candy, so a Vision-S concept car was on display. A Vision-S sedan prototype was displayed previously, but this new prototype is an SUV. So, at least in theory, Sony Mobility already has a two-car line-up.

The newest prototype is a seven-seat all-electric SUV with all-wheel drive. Further, it has 40 sensors installed inside and outside of the vehicle. It sure looks like a car, but is it really a car, or a showroom? When the first Vision-S prototype was shown two years ago, Sony said it was intended to showcase its expertise in sensor technology — parts that are critical for autonomous driving as well as other vehicle functionality. The plan was to sell sensors to car makers.

Does Sony actually intend to build cars? In a 2020 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Yoshida said, “...I really wanted them to make something that moves. I was thinking, ‘Even a Roomba, even a go-kart, can’t they make me something?’” And now we have another prototype vehicle, surely not a necessary step if your goal is to only sell sensors.

Could Sony become a power player in the rapidly expanding EV market?

What do we make of this? Could Sony become a power player in the rapidly expanding EV market? One might reasonably ask whether Sony has the capital to fund such an effort. Billions of dollars will be required. For example, Volkswagen and Toyota recently separately announced plans to spend $170 billion on EV development. Sony’s net income last year was a tad under $11 billion. To share the cost, would Sony partner with another company? If so, who? A car maker, some company out of left field, or maybe venture capital? At best, anything commercially drivable would be years away.

For now, let’s assume that Sony will launch its own EV. What would such a car bring to the party? More specifically, why would you buy a Sony instead of, say, a Tesla? For starters, like Apple, which has perennially been rumored to be interested in EVs, Sony brings instant name recognition and technical credibility. Also, while it is true that Sony does not have experience in making cars, it does have an in-depth knowledge of electronics. And on average, electronics comprise some 40 percent of a new car’s total cost, and that percentage is steadily increasing.

But Sony’s ace up the sleeve might be revealed by another of Mr. Yoshida’s comments, “The Vision-S also evolves mobility as an entertainment space, including gaming experience and audio.” This is not empty market-speak. Clearly, Sony knows a thing or two about the entertainment space. I expect that Sony vehicles would have absolutely terrific audio and video systems.

Audio/video is an important feature for many people, though maybe not a reason to pick one car brand over another. But I think Sony is envisioning a future in which mobility itself is quite different. If we imagine a future where cars are anonymous pods that autonomously take us places, we will actually welcome distractions. Thus the quality of the entertainment that a vehicle provides would be a selling point. As Mr. Yoshida stated at CES, “We believe Sony is well-positioned as a creative entertainment company to redefine mobility.”

So, will Sony make an electric vehicle? I have absolutely no idea. But if they start selling them, I’d probably buy one. You want to know why? Not because of the name, the expertise, or even the entertainment. It’s because a Sony EV would finally solve the problem of range anxiety. You see, with a Sony EV, if the battery runs out of juice, you can always walk, man. I sincerely apologize for that.

Ken C. Pohlmann is an electrical engineer specializing in audio topics as a consultant and writer. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Miami.

John_Werner's picture

I'd drive a SONY, no baloney!