Auto in­dus­try has opaque fu­ture

The Record (Troy, NY) - - FRONT PAGE - Ge­orge Will Colum­nist Ge­orge Will’s email ad­dress is georgewill@wash­post.com.

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 hands­free 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: GM sells more cars in China than in Amer­ica (it sold about 1.2 mil­lion Buicks last year, about a mil­lion of them in China, where elites drove them decades be­fore com­mu­nism ar­rived), and China man­u­fac­tures more cars than the United States and Ja­pan com­bined. As GM prom­ises two new elec­tric ve­hi­cles in the next 18 months, and a to­tal of 20 by 2023, one of Barra’s ex­ec­u­tives speaks of GM “driv­ing in­creased us­age and ac­cep­tance of elec­tric ve­hi­cles,” but gov­ern­ments are at the wheel. With­out sub­ven­tions from Washington, Tesla’s market cap­i­tal­iza­tion never would have even briefly ex­ceeded GM’s.

Barra fore­sees a fast-un­fold­ing fu­ture of “zero crashes” (sal­va­tion through soft­ware: au­tocrash fa­tal­ity rates are ris­ing for the first time in years, and 94 per­cent of crashes are caused by hu­man er­ror), “zero emis­sions” (zero from tailpipes, much from smoke­stacks in an all-elec­tric fu­ture) and “zero con­ges­tion” (with more ride-hail­ing ser­vices and car-shar­ing fleets, less in­di­vid­ual car own­er­ship and less ur­ban land de­voted to park­ing lots).

Ford, too, is an­tic­i­pat­ing a fu­ture re­plete with elec­tric, semi­au­tonomous, 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” (195663): “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 smart­cars. 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.

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