Suits and Cars

Last week, I received an invitation to have dinner with some nice people from General Motors, and to attend the Media opening of the Washington DC Auto Show.  I am not one to pass up an opportunity of this nature, especially involving a free dinner.  And yes, I think GM just got bailed out once or twice, so thanks, taxpayers, and let me know when I can get you back for your 1/300millionth share of my fish and chips.

It is encouraging to see the auto industry try their darnedest to understand why Americans are upset at them, why we generally consider them incompetent and obstructionist, especially when it comes to green innovations.  Somehow, lobbying against CAFE standards during $4 gas and an environmental crisis then blackmailing the country with the loss of millions of jobs if we don’t give them cash does not breed respect.  By highlighting their environmental progress at the Auto Show this week, especially to interested politicians, they hope to fix that.  I saw a congressperson!  Not sure which one.  Also Colin Powell totally walked right past me.  Closest I’ve ever been to famous, unless you count the time I chatted with Freeman Dyson by a buffet for a half-hour, but that only makes me cool in certain circles.

An entire exhibition floor at the auto show is dedicated to more or less green car models.  Lots of things plug in these days, and if you drive a Prius, you can bump that baby to 120 mpg with a plug-in battery for a $10,000 investment at Fitzgerald Toyota in Gaithersburg, MD.  A few cars weren’t even totally car-like- they had a smart car and a glorified bike-thing, too.  But really, it was mostly just cars running on not-gas, or not-as-much gas.  The larger exhibition hall in the lower level had a Tesla display and a few hybrid models- but mostly conventional gas-powered cars.

By meeting with bloggers, too, these guys are really trying to figure out how their message is going wrong.  The execs described to us their efforts to reach out to consumers, their frustration with the misinformation about the industry out there, and we explained to them how blogs work, and how they might use new media to help themselves out.  There was also an amusing interlude wherein the concept of trolling was explained.  Our generational divides were showing.  But really, there are bigger issues than just their ability to communicate.

It was evident at the car show that the American auto industry is trying it’s best to get alternative fuels out there.  It’s sponsoring competitions, it’s looking into hydrogen and battery technologies and all sorts of new ideas.  I worry, however, that their best attempts at green cars are still too much just cars.  Big hunks of stuff that we’ll sit through traffic jams in, no matter what they burn to go when they can.  We’re at a crossroads here.  We get to redefine transportation now- infrastructure needs and environment and quality of life concerns all indicate that we’re not doing well with a car-based country.  There are better uses for our space than parking lots. I don’t think the auto industry is looking beyond their cars to see how we can link up to the trains or bikes or buses or subways or jetpacks we’ll use to get around more efficiently- for them it’s about autos, it’s not about transportation.

I want to see more imagination in their plans.  I want them to think beyond cars.  I think that will save their industry, and it could literally get us where we need to be in 50 years.

The DC Auto Show is a laudable effort on the industry’s part, but it doesn’t begin to address the deeper issues of what moves us.

I got some cards, and I’ll be sending a few thank-you emails for the chance to chat.  I’m hoping I can get some of the participants here for a little to talk with you all, so tell me what you think of my observations, the car companies, hydrogen, whatever, and we’ll get up a little dialog at least amongst ourselves.

Meanwhile, look like it might be nice enough Friday to bike to work…

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