Auto industry’s opaque future
DETROIT – Bending metal, slapping on chrome and marketing an empowering product and status marker that mesmerized 20th century America, the automobile industry typified the Old Economy, of which General Motors was emblematic. As was its bankruptcy. Today, GM’s CEO Mary Barra is wagering that the industry soon will be manufacturing New Economy products. They will incorporate technologies that will entice buyers whose sensibilities and expectations have been shaped by the kind of empowerment delivered by their smartphones, which arrived just 10 years ago.
GM’s electric self-starter, which replaced hand cranks, was the last century’s most transformative innovation. It arrived in 1912. Today, Cadillac offers hands-free driving, with advanced GPS mapping. An eye-tracking camera on the steering column monitors driver alertness, and the car nags the distracted driver back to attentiveness, which makes this technological marvel less of a convenience than the self-starter. Still, Barra is attempting an audacious balance between the demands of present consumers and radically different future demands. Or, more accurately, a future that governments, hostile to consumer sovereignty, intend to dictate.
China has announced, as have Britain and France, plans to ban, at an undetermined date, sales of vehicles powered by fossil fuels in their tanks. (Electric vehicles will be powered mostly by fossil fuel-generated electricity.) In Shanghai in mid-September, Barra dissented: “I think it works best when, instead of mandating, consumers, not government dictates, should decide how cars are powered.” But governments, and not just dictatorships, like to dictate, and companies must accommodate.
Ford, too, is anticipating a future replete with electric, semi-autonomous, driverless and shared cars: Two years ago, it announced a $4.5 billion investment in electric vehicles. But to pay for this speculation (electrics are 1 percent of U.S. car sales, despite tax incentives to buy what the government prefers), Ford is diverting $7 billion from cars to vehicles for which there actually is demand – SUVs and trucks (its F-Series pickup has been America’s best-selling vehicle since 1982).
The automobile industry is precariously poised between a glamorous past and a future as opaque as it was when Henry Ford supposedly said that if he had begun by asking customers what they wanted they would have answered “a faster horse.” Or when the company he founded produced a car named for his son Edsel.
“This is a long-lead-time business,” says Barra, as she tries to peer over the horizon to develop products for a public that increasingly can work and shop without leaving home, and that decreasingly vacations as it was exhorted to by the theme song of “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show” (1956-63): “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” The torrid romance that was America’s car culture has cooled (the percentage of 12th-graders with a driver’s license has declined from 88 to 73 since 1978), the sedan (Chevrolet’s Impala has been around since 1958) is an endangered species, and car companies are preparing for a future in which the crucial metric is not the number of vehicles sold to consumers but the number of miles traveled by consumers.
Barra, 55, whose father was a die-maker for Pontiac for 39 years, remembers when auto dealers covered their showroom windows with paper to build excitement for the first glimpses of new models.
She is banking on a more sophisticated kind of excitement for smart cars. They will be designed for customers who in 2006 did not know that soon they would not be able to imagine living without the smartphones that in 2006 they could not imagine.
George Will Heliport isn’t appropriate anywhere near waterfront
Thanks to The News for the Oct. 7 piece calling Tifft Nature Preserve “a birder’s paradise.” Like much of the narrow strip of land between the Buffalo River and Lake Erie, including the Outer Harbor, Tifft is a National Audubon Society-designated “Important Bird Area,” thanks to the hundreds of species of breeding and migratory birds to be seen there. Birders come from all over the world to enjoy the natural serenity of Tifft and Times Beach Nature Preserves and the naturalizing land between them like the Bell Slip preserve. Most of this coastal land is zoned “green” or “natural” in the city’s Green Code – parkland and refuge to many species whose populations are in decline, including American bittern, brown thrasher, osprey, pied-billed grebe, muskellunge and lake sturgeon.
And, as Mary Kunz Goldman wrote, “This isn’t only their refuge. It’s yours.” Buffalo’s Lake Erie coast is where we walk, cycle, sail and sit to watch birds, wildlife and gorgeous sunsets.
This week the Common Council canceled a public hearing on a proposal to put a helicopter port in the midst of all this, due to opposition from neighboring communities and businesses. The project proponent saw a business opportunity for photo tourism, “allowing passengers to capture and experience the city from the vantage point only birds are used to seeing.” The problem is the externalized costs to surrounding communities, human and wild, of daily helicopter takeoffs and landings from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
A heliport is not appropriate anywhere in Buffalo’s hard-won and beautifully recovering Outer Harbor. Council members are helping to conserve our city’s greatest natural public asset – our park on the lake.
I understand the frustration that exists over inaction and ethical problems in Albany, but a constitutional convention is not the answer. It could make things worse. Please vote no on the convention.
Anything can be a weapon for a deranged individual
Much is being written in regard to the use of guns as weapons of destruction. How soon we forget to remember trucks loaded with fertilizer taking down buildings and killing innocents, or the pressure cookers used by other deranged individuals to wreak havoc on more innocent victims. How about hammers, butcher knives and airplanes, just to name a few other weapons commonly used by deranged individuals?
Let’s be clear. The average person, no matter how agitated, seldom gets out of bed in the morning, has breakfast and goes out on a murderous rampage.
So maybe instead of demonizing guns, we should start to look for the real culprits in these situations. What altered state are these killers’ minds in? What has or is causing their thinking to be so far from normal?
As I sit in front of my television, I see night after night drugs being advertised to help all sorts of illness and problems. I also notice that each of these is usually followed by a cautionary statement often including thoughts of suicide or other odd behaviors. Has anyone else ever given a thought to what makes a person kill his fellow man?
Paul J. Ziolkowski
Only top-notch students should attend City Honors
The recent News article on City Honors was well done and the information it contained was excellent. It mentioned the City Honors “premise that no student who is less qualified will be given a seat over a student who is more qualified.”
Fortunately, for brilliant students in Buffalo, we have a ranking system, unlike Amherst which has done away with ranking.
The Sept. 29 News editorial presumes “that the admissions process is truly raceblind.” If the process is not, it should be fixed.
Raina Lipsitz, writing in Another Voice, feels that “without diversity, City Honors is just another school.” My feeling is that City Honors is not and should not be just another school. Why can we not accept that most students do not qualify for City Honors?