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Open Letter to the Auto Industry

To whom it may concern:

You have collectively lost the plot. In the one hundred years this industry has existed, you and your predecessors have been given many opportunities to innovate, to re-invent, to evolve. Instead, you have deliberately and consciously stagnated and taken hundreds of thousands of workers and billions of dollars down the same rathole.

From the National Bus Lines conspiracy in the 50s, to the emergence of smog and air pollution as a threat to the health of cities and the people who live in them in the 60s, to the oil price shocks of the 70s and the past year, and encompassing the decline in US manufacturing market share and the rise of Asian and German manufacturers, American auto makers have worked tirelessly to benefit their own management — where else can someone make tens of millions of dollars to preside over a trainwreck like this? — and the oil companies. Sure, there have been a lot of new businesses created to supply parts and materials over the years, but what are they to do now? They have invested in specialized processes and skills that are the verge of being obsolete.

If any one of these large and resource-rich organizations had remembered that they were chartered to build transportation solutions, broadly defined to include a variety beyond four wheeled cars and trucks that are largely interchangeable, we might not be in this situation. 100 years ago, there was a rich diversity of choices, in size, purpose, and even fuel and power sources. Steam, electricity, and gasoline were all options. Given the technologies of the time, gasoline was the winner. But in the 100 years since, have there been no technological innovations that would have re-energized some of those choices? It’s not the fault of the autoworkers who can and will build anything they are asked to. After all, who works in the plants owned by the Asian and German manufacturers? Same people, different products. It’s not the fault of the designers and engineers. Their fathers put a man on the moon 40 years ago with slide rules and graph paper. They could design and build anything.

No, it’s a failure of leadership, of a willingness to see opportunities as challenges to embrace, not as obstables to avoid. The industry as a whole has refused to make any changes unless forced by legislative mandate. Seat belts, shoulder belts, airbags, emissions controls, reverse lights, additional brake lights — how many of these were taken on voluntarily? The people at the very top of the chain of command have failed their companies, their shareholders, their partners who supply them, their employees and ultimately their country.

The only way I could imagine funding any assistance to these failed businesses would be to require they build a fleet of vehicles that conform to a rigidly defined standard, with fuel efficiency, safety, and price being the main drivers. The mayors of America’s large cities could be asked to provide a specification for taxicabs and police cars, rather than just putting up with the inefficient sedans you offer as fleet options.

Further, you should be required to design and offer for sale replacement power plants for existing vehicles. The integrated power systems with a motor and regenerative braking and charging that we see on buses could be fitted on thousands of American minivans, perhaps the vehicle that travels more miles per day than any non-commercial vehicle.

Oh, you’ll squawk and complain that it can’t be done. But in rooms across your corporate campuses and design buildings, there are groups of resourceful men and women who will prove you wrong, if you let them. But you would have to be leaders, not managers. Nothing I have seen persuades me you have what it takes.

I’m sure these arguments will be dismissed as a rant from someone who isn’t a “car guy.” True enough: I don’t get any gratification from driving. I’m not 17 anymore. Driving is a means to an end, a way to get around, and the less hassle it is, the more I like it. I don’t want a relationship with a car any more than I want one with a washing machine or a broom. I want well-made reliable products for each of those, but I am saving my relationship energy for the people in my life.

I fully expect these manufacturers to keep churning out undifferentiated crud that no one wants but so long as enough people can afford to buy them, they’ll sell. The improvements will be in cupholders and chrome, electronics and personal comfort. Just as a five blade razor is no great improvement over a its predecessors, nothing we’ll see on tomorrow’s car lots will be a big improvement over yesterday’s.

What a waste.

Jan 21, 2009

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