UpFront: Hey Automotive, Hang In There!
By Brian J. Hogan
Back in the seventies and eighties, I knew guys working on high-mileage vehicles to meet the surging demand that the general press was trumpeting. One of them was a clever aerospace engineer who designed and built something he called the California Commuter, which could travel 150 miles on a gallon of gas. It was an enclosed, three-wheeled motorcycle that employed a prone-driver configuration, and it worked fine. My recollection is that he received orders for three vehicles. Obviously, the Commuter never went into production.
As I get older, I become more and more convinced that fashion, that most trivial, superficial parameter, governs far more of our lives than we wish to admit. Today, shouts from the fashionable general press, as in years gone by, tell everyone that the world automotive industry (the US automotive industry in particular) must develop high-mileage cars, perhaps able to run on ethanol or hydrogen or who knows what else.
And it seems most consumers think the fashionable electric hybrid vehicle—something that was rolling about the US during the administration of Woodrow Wilson—is hot new technology. If you want to go hybrid, why not look at hydraulic or flywheel-hybrid technology? There was quite a lot of work done on both those concepts by folks I used to know, back in the days the locusts have eaten.
But fashion picks its favorites, and in 2006 the automotive industry is not embraced by that mighty beast, except as an object of contempt—even hate. So what is this great manufacturing industry, this engine of prosperity and technology, to do?
Well, fashion drives the general press.To placate the press, the automotive industry is announcing vehicles that conform to the template the general press likes—electric hybrids, ethanol vehicles, etc. That's necessary, but no auto company should base its future on such projects.
Instead, the auto industry should keep plugging away at the job of designing and manufacturing handsome, high-quality, reliable automobiles. It sounds banal, I suppose, but that's the ticket to the future.Technically sound, well-manufactured, attractive automobiles will find buyers, without discounting or incentives.
Always remember that, for the most part, critics of the automotive industry don't know what they don't know. The level of technical understanding among the general public, and the general press, is not high. It's astounding how many people have never been inside any sort of manufacturing plant, let alone an automotive assembly or machining facility. Complaints about the inadequacies of today's cars rest upon a foundation of invincible ignorance, supplemented by fantasy. And fashion. We'll hear them again and again, until fashion chooses a new object to gnaw upon.
This article was first published in the September 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.