Columnist’s goodbye reflections on a complex industry

Someday soon, when I’m riding in an autonomous electric flying car, heading to a restaurant that my vehicle decided I would like after it decided I was hungry, I’ll look back to the current automotive era and think, “Wow, that was so last decade!”

You know? People driving cars … on roads? Burning gasoline? Crashing into things? Being distracted from their text messaging?

And the industry? Companies that built cars? Cars that people owned? A global herd of brands, jostling to differentiate themselves?

No way, right?

I’m only sort of joking. It certainly appears that we’re on the cusp of dramatic, epoch-ending change.

So — burying the lede here — as I retire after 19 years at Automotive News, it makes me consider the times I’ve gone through covering the auto industry.

Clockwise from top left, Dieter Zetsche, a flying car, Rick Wagoner, Elon Musk and a Tesla Model 3, and GM’s AUTOnomy concept at the ’02 Detroit show. Photo credit: AUTOMOTIVE NEWS ILLUSTRATION

Here are some thoughts and scenes that stand out:

  • The contrast between how easy it is to envision radically changing the motor vehicle and how hard it is to do so, at least on any meaningful scale, is enormous. (See: Tesla, Fisker, Coda, Better Place, Aptera et al.) I mean, the General Motors AUTOnomy fuel cell concept vehicle, built on a reconfigurable skateboard platform with wheel-well motors, drew oohs and ahhs at the 2002 Detroit auto show. But despite some compelling advantages, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are a near-invisible presence. Having roughly a billion internal-combustion-powered cars in the world, along with the accompanying petroleum infrastructure, pretty much defines sunk cost.
  • Speaking of auto shows, or at least auto show press days, if these sprawling, adrenaline-sucking news bazaars go the way of the floppy disk, I’ll miss them. Few things are more challenging than racing around the mob scene on a show floor, jet-lagged and pumped up, to chase the news. But they’re also occasions for the global village of automakers, suppliers, analysts and media to come together, touch base, exchange intel and gossip, and check each other out. That function may be as valuable as the show itself, and it’s hard to see what will replace it.
  • As the disrupters-vs.-establishment battle continues, my mind drifts back to the tense days after 9/11. I was stranded in Europe, along with a lot of North Americans at the Frankfurt auto show, until GM arranged a chartered flight home. I remember talking to one GM manager on the flight who said: “That’s why I like working for a company like GM. They take care of you.” Now, at that moment, I was very grateful that GM was taking care of me. But that comment seems to define the personality type that seeks a career at a huge, established company, as opposed to the person who jumps into the “shove all the chips on the table and spin the wheel” atmosphere of a Tesla or an Uber.
  • In a 2009 interview in Frankfurt, Tesla’s Elon Musk laid out his plan to change the world: First the $100,000-plus Roadster, then a $50,000-ish car, then a sub-$30,000 mass-market car. Tesla is struggling to reach that last goal, both in terms of production volume and price. But, to me, that remains the proof point for Tesla.
  • In an interview with then-GM CEO Rick Wagoner (whom I still admire), he admitted in somewhat opaque finance-guy-speak that GM couldn’t respond effectively to demand. A significant problem, right? What with a large dealer body to feed, too many brands, too many plants and the Jobs Bank (where it kept paying laid-off workers), its strategy was to run at or near full capacity and try to squeeze some profit out of the vehicles. And it wasn’t working.
  • As Dieter Zetsche was getting ready to leave Chrysler and return to Germany, he appeared at a dealer conference in — where else? — Las Vegas to pass the torch to Tom LaSorda. It was quite the extravaganza, featuring Cirque de Soleil and a walk-on appearance by Sean Connery. But what I remember most is Zetsche saying to warm applause that DaimlerChrysler had two headquarters, in Stuttgart and Auburn Hills, Mich. Less than a year later, Daimler signaled that Chrysler was for sale.
  • On one press trip, there was an odd day in London where GM didn’t know what to do with me, I think. So they shipped me out to talk to a dealer. The guy was a loyalist, talking up GM (or more precisely, Vauxhall), and I was struck by a number of things that were different about a British dealership. Then I asked the dealer if there was anything he would like GM to do differently. He said, well, yes, he wasn’t getting nearly enough of the popular vehicles. That’s when I realized, “OK, I know this guy.”
  • It’s sometimes easy to overlook how dependent automakers are on the finance sector. It wasn’t 9/11 that sunk GM and Chrysler, or the real estate crash. It was the Lehman bankruptcy and the finance industry ducking into the bunker, clamping down on car loans and leases, and especially on corporate financing. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise: If GM and Chrysler had been able to float some debt in 2008, they might have avoided bankruptcy, but most likely would still be muddling through with legacy balance sheets.
  • Speaking of Wall Street, IMHO that’s why car companies are drifting away from the auto show circuit. Sure, the big display stands are expensive. Sure, the execs would like to take those stops off their schedules. But really the dollars and time commitments are trivial for companies on the scale of Ford and Toyota and Volkswagen. I think that automakers are more concerned with showing up at places like CES to say to Wall Street, “See, we’re tech companies, not old-economy metal-benders.” Automakers need to show that they have an upside.
  • And finally, amidst all of today’s innovation, the industry still hasn’t solved one of the most vexing aspects of it products. I speak, of course, of the crevice between the driver’s seat and the arm rest/shifter console, the weird little grotto that I was fishing in last weekend with a bent clothes-hanger as I knelt on the backseat floor, pulling out business cards, pocket change, cough drops, and, yes, the pesky little battery that skittered down there in a careless moment.

So … challenges profound and mundane. I’m not sure that every player in this amazing industry will survive the next decade or two, but I wish everyone well.

Just let me know when my flying car is ready.


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