Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's not about just making a better car.

As the article linked above speaks to, GM (and probably Ford and maybe Chrysler) are making cars that are up to Japanese snuff. Somehow there's a jingoistic notion in America (it's most redolent in Detroit) that now that that's so, the domestic automakers have redeemed themselves and should once again ascend to market domination.

About a trillion things are wrong with this argument. I'll focus on three.

1. The Past. GM and the rest of Detroit have had, for at least the last fifty years a "may the customer be damned" attitude. Planned obsolescence. Lack of quality. Lack of innovation. And perhaps most egregious, franchised dealer networks that kicked the shit out of customers coming and going--ripping them off in every way possible.
2. False Patriotism. Since the 1960s rise of VW and then the onrush of Japanese autos into our market, Detroit has bludgeoned consumers with the notion that it's un-American to buy a foreign car. This is so contrary to logic and any notion of a free-market. Consumers have a right to buy the best product they can with their money. To impugn their patriotism is the worst form of bullying, abuse and dishonesty.
3. Lack of innovation. Detroit continues to be dishonest about its commitment to either decent fuel economy or pollution controls. They are quick to trumpet the few hybrids they do build and the few micro cars that get "world-class" gas mileage, but in point of fact, they are still pushing gas guzzlers and lag way behind Japanese and German automakers in alternative fuels. What's more, Detroit's powerful lobbies have, to date, prevented the US Government from raising fleet mileage standards. This is to the great detriment of our environment.

Detroit may someday make the best cars in the world. But when you've lied and broken promises to consumers for the better part of fifty years, you must to more than merely fix your product and yourself. You must apologize and make good on previous bad behavior.


Matt said...

I take issue with your "lack of innovation" argument. The U.S. automakers aren't the only ones fighting new CAFE or pollution control regulations. So are Toyota, Nissan, et al.

Ford and GM make some brilliant, clean and efficient diesels in Europe and elsewhere. They just don't sell them here. And GM is constantly pushing the R&D envelope, at least with regards to its concepts. Last year's Volt and the earlier HyWire both have the potential to be game-changers.

Their problem is delivering those innovations to U.S. buyers. GM is finally getting on the ball by importing Opels as Saturns. Ford has yet to learn.

You are right, though, that the domestics need to do more than make better cars. To be honest, I think they need to start making GREAT cars. But at the very least, they need product that is competitive with anything else in its respective segment. That has to be their price of entry, these days.

Past's going to take a hell of a lot more than advertising to win back everyone who has defected in the past 30+ years. It's going to take one-on-one interaction with the customers. It's going to take timely refreshes, a few breakout products, and a long, slow shift in word-of-mouth.

george tannenbaum said...

matt, you're clearly more knowledgeable than I when it comes to the details of innovation. My point about it is that I believe that Detroit could have been innovating more in alt. fuels and environmentally friendly vehicles. They seem slow on the uptake--the electric Saturn not withstanding. Further, I am cynical about Volt because GM's used it as they've used other technologies that weren't really viable--as a symbol of their activity. GM has a harder slog. I am inclined not to believe that Volt will ever be real because they've over-hyped so many other lies. E-85 anyone?

Matt said...

I'm actually inclined to think the Volt - or something using its drivetrain model - will see production. The big issue at the moment - and one GM, Toyota, et al are powerless to really control - is the cost of Li-Ion batteries.

But boy are you right about E85. I think someone in GM's marketing department probably realized a number of their vehicles were already capable of running it (for export to Brazil and other ethanol-happy markets), and thought it a good message to run against the Priuses of the world.

Unknown said...

I stood in front of the biggest guys at Eastman Kodak Company over a period of ten years and said over and over:"...Digital's coming...come on fellas...get a clue...get in and lead that space while the words "Kodak" and "My Memories" are still synonyms. Well, you know how that thing turned out. Just as Kodak's culture and infrastructure were inextricable from film, GM is built around internal combustion engines.I think if they were going to make the leap, they'd have done so. I think they've missed their window.
Oh, and a note on E85... I was at an E85 site yesterday and clicked on a link that would find me all the E85 stations within 100 miles of my zipcode. There were none. And It's not like I live in Nowhere North Dakota. I live in Boston!