Auto in­dus­try’s opaque fu­ture

The Buffalo News - - OPINION - Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group Buf­falo Pres­i­dent, Erie County Farm Bu­reau Lan­caster Buf­falo

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.

Mar­garet Wooster

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.

Jef­frey Si­mons

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?

Robert Kaiser

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