Monday, July 24, 2006

Why Detroit Doesn’t Deserve to Survive in Automobile Manufacturing




Fifteen years or so ago, General Motors talked enthusiastically about developing electric cars. Talk was cheap, but the car wasn’t. The fifty or so that ever saw wheels on the road cost about half a mil each.

Fifteen years or so ago, General Motors talked enthusiastically about developing electric cars.
Impactelectriccar Talk was cheap, but the car wasn’t. The fifty or so that ever saw wheels on the road cost about half a mil each. Which is okay. Research and development doesn’t come cheap to a company that keeps tens of thousands of employees busy in design departments that turn out probably the world’s most stodgy cars.
Being half-hearted about the car at best, it’s no surprise they named it half-heartedly, or worse yet, insidiously. The Impact. What a corporate lapse into temporary insanity.
Auto buyerss’ number one worry about electric cars is safety. Suggesting the possibility of impact didn’t do much to allay the fears still lingering from the Corvair. Number two concern was (and is) performance. At curb weight just over a ton and top speed limited to 75 mph, Impact was not only an ugly duckling, it could barely waddle as well.
Teslaroadster1 But a group in Silicon Valley with $60 mil in seed money and Britain’s Lotus auto company as a manufacturer, is rubbing Detroit’s nose in an embarrassingly beautiful, high performance electric roadster. Remember the name Tesla. The man was a Serbian-American Edison, who brought us alternating-current, the juice that makes your toast and coffee.
The star car takes the star’s name. The Tesla roadster, gorgeous and quick.
High performance in an electric? How does 0-60 in four seconds sound? Half a second quicker than a Porsche 911 and a full second ahead of an Audi S-4, each powered with big-liter gas-guzzling engines. The Porsche and Audi may have a higher top speed, but 135 mph will get you to the office pretty quickly.
Teslaroadster3 How about range? That always defeated Detroit. This one’ll do 200 miles between plug-ins, which is okay if you stop for lunch on a long trip and top up the batteries—which are lithium instead of the dreaded, heavy, slow charging lead-acid batteries.
Pricey? Yeah, a hundred grand for a Ferrari-type roadster with performance and finish to match, but you know that mostly hand built cars like the Maserati and Porsche are pricey. Production brings those costs down, as is exemplified by the stunningly successful (and beautiful) Mazda Miata.
Infrastructure is vital to electric cars and always has been, but ‘form follows function,’ as architect Louis Sullivan reminded us 100 years ago. An inviolable principle. There’s no way we’re going to get parking-meter style car re-chargers until we get some cars drivers are willing and eager to re-charge. Certainly the Impact isn’t going to get us there.
But 0-60 in total silence in four seconds might raise a modest bit of interest.
Teslaroadster2 If General Motors and Ford are unable and unwilling to bring anything to market that anticipates an electric future, what does that mean? Ford sits on $25 billion in available capital and the Tesla was developed for relative peanuts. It’s not a pickup or an SUV, but it’s exciting and innovative and gets the juices flowing both electrically and adrenalin-wise. 
I guess Detroit is scared.
That’s easy to understand, CEOs trapped in the paralysis of betting the future of their industrial dinosaurs, when every move they made during the past two decades contributed to their current demise. Bound to make a corporate guy flinchy.
There was excitement in the early days of car manufacturing and the buying public supported that sense of exhilaration. Wonderful cars that are no more slipped over the horizon, Stutz Bearcats and Duesenbergs and Cords. Designers and manufacturers went broke and reinvented themselves to go broke again or get sucked into the whirlpool of the survivors. Packard went under, along with Hudson, Studebaker and Nash.
It was the exact opposite of Hollywood. The auto industry abandoned the wonderful world of color for the drab meaphor of black and white and we have been stylistically poorer ever since. Detroit moved from the 'talkies' of the thirties, forties and fifties, entirely backwards into the 'silent-films' of auto design that we endure today.
Just look around at the dreary sameness of cars that all resemble similar bars of soap. Decades ago, Mercedes studied wind dynamics as a part of what they marketed as ‘slipperiness’ in auto body design. Thus was born the Mercedes that looks like a VW and a BMW that can't be told from a Chevvy.
Cars are boring. We are bored. Someone, put us out of our Ford Escort misery with a lovely car. If such cars might eventually kick off an interest in electric performance, who knows what may come of that?
How long has it been since an exciting car was announced? Martin Eberhard, the guy behind the Tesla development, nailed it, when he said
"Most electric cars were designed by and for people who fundamentally don't think we should drive. We at Tesla Motors love cars."
The Tesla Roadster proves that and may be the sound of the opening bell.
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