Happy New Year!
August 20th, 2006 8:51 AM Share
Thanks in part to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, mankind believes everything's gradually getting better. It's a pretty strange kind of optimism, what with killer uptopians like Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin hanging-out in our collective past. But this faith in the eternal sunshine of the spotless future fits in nicely with the whole New Year's thing. As does The Detroit News (DTN) January 1 feature "The Road Ahead." Given the black cloud of bankruptcy hanging over Detroit, writer Bill Vlassic's desire to spread a little holiday cheer with a bit of automotive boosterism is entirely understandable. But there's a big difference between lightening-up and enlightenment.
Vlassic begins by revealing that some 40 new cars will debut in Detroit. It's a perfect illustration of the current industry belief that the more models, the merrier. Not so. The explosion of new product actually betrays monumental desperation and a terrific lack of focus. From Porsche's expanding portfolio of unsports cars to Pontiac's odd collection of rebadged vehicles, the abundance of new and often unrelated products represents an unnecessary and self-defeating dissolution of a marque's core strengths. Is General Motors any better off because its Detroit auto show display will feature 10 more products than last year (128 vs. 118)? I don't think so.
Vlassic cites the launch of the Toyota Camry hybrid as a corner turned in a "relentlessly competitive industry" (as opposed to what, real estate?). Yes, 'whether it's hybrid power, computerized safety devices or satellite radio, the average American car is tacking on new technologies and features at dizzying speed" (as opposed to what, personal computers?). We're told that the 'headlong race to satisfy ever-more diverse and sophisticated customers will determine the winners and losers in the auto industry in the coming years." Aside from the nouns involved, this love letter to the joys of automotive progress could've been written in the Eisenhower era.
Back in the day, the American automobilist was equally enthralled by the thrill of the new– only gizmology wasn't their first priority. It was more about style, power and, well, snobbery. But that's not the kind of message today's PC automakers want to send to potential customers. They want consumers to see their feature-laden chariots as miracles of modern science teetering on the brink of perfection. The idea that technological progress is fiendishly difficult, infinitely desirable and strategically paramount provides manufacturers with a convenient excuse for lackluster sales AND endless hope that they can reclaim their share of a brighter tomorrow.
In reality, carmakers are not "perfecting the vehicle." For one thing, perfection is impossible. For another, legislation is now the driving force behind automotive design and engineering. As you'd expect from this odd intersection of fiat and free market, the car industry is being pulled in all directions. It's forced to reconcile mileage with safety, cost with complexity, innovation with liability. While technology plays a crucial role in meeting these conflicting goals, Vlassic's "headlong race" towards more technically sophisticated products isn't the be-all and end-all the writer would have us believe.
More specifically, the hybrid Camry may mark a tipping point for wider acceptance of gas – electric powerplants, but it's only a small indication of how far domestic carmakers have fallen behind their competition; the Japanese lead in smooth and reliable gas engines is far more commercially significant. Growing consumer discomfort with mouse-driven controllers and kludgy electronics indicates that many manufacturers are boldly going where consumers wish they didn't. The US car market is not as highly fragmented as Sciontologists suggest; the American sales chart is still plenty top-heavy. And the only real indication of the average consumer's "increasing sophistication" is their newfound ability to establish dealer invoice.
Those of you who follow such things will realize that Vlassic's logic is Ford friendly. Considering The Blue Oval's recent 'Innovation' rebranding, the DTN feature reads like a transcript from a Ford-sponsored press lunch. No surprise, then, that Vlassic takes us for a PR spin 'round Ford's Innovation Acceleration Center. Vlassic describes it as the Motown equivalent of a Silicon Valley software developers' lair, complete with Lego, a video wall and flop couches. The writer lauds Ford's two-year-old blue sky department with predictable, wide-eyed enthusiasm– even though the fruits of their labors are vaguely described as "many advances in Ford's hybrid engine technology" and "new vehicle incentive programs and marketing strategies."
Like Vlassic's article, Ford's innovatorium appears to suffer from an overdose of self-importance and a hobbling of misdirected focus. Obviously, automakers must develop products that incorporate new technology. But in car making as in nature, 'true' innovation almost always spawns mutant babies. Survival depends on a constant stream of incremental improvements to a proven product. Any automaker who bets the company on a constantly changing menu of technologically advanced vehicles faces corporate extinction, as we shall soon see…
Published December 31st, 2005 7:00 PM
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