With U.S. automakers grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years, news consumers have become rubberneckers gawking at the scene of the car crash. Too bad the accident's a 250 million- car pileup, and none of us were wearing seatbelts. It's culminated in the bailout and bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler and hard questions about their ability to compete. The once mighty Ford Motor Company has slipped to fourth worldwide in automakers.
I had occasion to take a gander at ground zero of the auto industry's rise and fall on a recent visit to Motor City, Detroit, and on a visit to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. I drove my 2005 Toyota Corolla to get there.
The Henry Ford is a great American museum — perhaps the best I've been to outside of Washington, D.C. Under one roof, among 100,000 other things, you'll find the Rosa Parks bus, the chair Abraham Lincoln was in when he was assassinated, the limousine JFK was in when he was shot, and, naturally, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
And then in the other half of the building, organized for single-visit digestion, is a century-plus of auto and aeronautical innovations. You can see it all from the Quadricycle — Henry Ford's first self-propelled, gasoline-powered vehicle — to concept cars that look to the future as they sit in sleek repose with shiny angles.
Strolling through the galleries of one gorgeous auto after another, the image arises of a good company doing good things to the betterment of the nation. Beginning in 1903, Ford Motor Company transformed American life to a staggering degree. The museum's collection of pre-gasoline vehicles (Steam! Wind! Horses!) looks as anachronistic to contemporary American life as do the gut-churning slavery-age paraphernalia on display in a nearby exhibit.
For much of the 20th century, Ford improved the quality of life for average Americans almost on an annual basis as it enhanced its automobiles. In the museum, you can see the rise of the company reflected in the giant steps forward in the technology; charted on a graph, it would be marked with a steep incline over many decades. Until, that is, the company — and, commensurately, the entire U.S. auto industry — apparently stopped doing best practices: on a graph, it'd be a plateau and then a crater.
Pinpointing what went wrong and when is essential to the process of resuscitating the industry. It's a challenge that is above my intellectual level and experience — though, after spending just one afternoon in a museum, it's seems clear that U.S. automakers grew lazy and greedy. Two bad tastes that taste even worse together.
The selling adage goes that you don't sell a man one car, you sell him five cars over 15 years. The auto industry doesn't even try that anymore. Now they want to sell you the same car five times over 15 years. Auto advances have centered on comfort (i.e., cup holders) and size (bigger is better). Nothing wrong with either, except these improvements have taken precedent over more dramatic changes. It's as if the car had been perfected and needed only minor tweaking.
Gas efficiency is one such dramatic change where automakers have failed their customers. Going back a lifetime, CAFE standards set a goal of doubling the 1974 passenger car fuel economy by 1985, to 27.5 mpg. That target wasn't fully legislated and met by the industry until 1990. Since then, 27.5 has been the rule, and automakers have been good corporate citizens by hanging out just above the minimum requirement.
You'll get the usual protestations from pure free-marketers (to whom I used to be much more sympathetic, before W. watched the barrel dive off Niagara), but if auto fuel economy can be doubled in 15 years after "artificial" government intervention, how much more efficient could those engines be made? I refuse to believe that we're approaching the threshold of gas-engine economy. We reached it with 1990 technology and have hardly progressed since. Other things America didn't have in 1990: DVD players in cars (much less DVDs), the World Wide Web, GPS tracking, smartphones, and Kanye West.
And how much longer must we be tied to an energy source that was abundant and not readily deleterious a century ago but has since worn out its welcome? The problem with automakers offering hybrids and cars marketed as energy-efficient is that, until very recently, they've been treated by the automaker as a gimmick, as a supposed good-faith effort, as a sop to get the EPA and other radical environmentalists to shut up. I'm reminded of my own favorite leftist radical Zach de la Rocha, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, who once scored with the line, "So raise your fists and march around / Just don't take what you need."
American automakers' efforts lack the commitment of, say, a man putting boot to moon or capitalizing on the advantages of assembly-line manufacturing. American ingenuity is reliant upon striving to be the first, the fastest, the most, the best. Judging by the industry's behavior in the last few decades, domestic automakers have been satisfied with maximizing profit for the least investment.
The American populace is resilient and adaptable. We want leadership and commitment. If the average U.S.'er is tired of corporate shenanigans and is kicking back, it's because we've forgotten what a good corporation looks like. We stand not that far removed from the Ford that revolutionized American life. There's no reason Ford 2.0, GM 2.0, and all the rest can't lead a similar charge in the 21st century. If they don't, they'll join the Pinto in the scrap heap of history. It'll make a heck of a museum, though.