Thursday, November 20, 2008

Back in the U.S.A

Ah, the land of plenty. Cheap beer, burgers and bagels. As my brother put it, it's almost like I've come to a 3rd world nation after Scandinavian prices.

Also big in the USA: television. With ads. Including ads for the centerpiece of American commerce, the automobile.

I'm finding it depressing to watch the car ads. I'm sure some people are still buying cars, even American ones. The models they're producing are supposedly quite good these days, especially in comparison to the years when they fell so far behind in the quality race. But in the past few years, the ones just coming to an end, it seemed to me that the car of choice was a silver Mercedes-Benz. Or a Lexus...or a Toyota for a lot of us.

It's hard to watch the ads because it sure seems like the end of an era. How did this happen? During the 1950s and 60s, the US was so far ahead of the rest of the world that it wasn't even funny. They innovated. They set the style for the whole world, more or less, without too many complaints. Did they become too used to simply declaring what consumers should want?

I think that, like many other companies, the auto industry forgot what their purpose was. When they introduced seat belts, people didn't want them. They were ahead of the curve, providing features before the public asked for them. Why the missteps now? Despite the scares of the 1970s, they built the SUVs. Understandable -- people wanted larger cars. They built cars to be more powerful instead of more efficient, for the same reasons.

What's inexcusable, however, is the lack of innovation when it comes to efficiency. We all know the story of the EV1. There are still charging stations in California. I can understand not selling the vehicles in volume; I'm willing to give the makers a mulligan on the weird leases and destroyed vehicles.

But c'mon. We turned a corner last year and people want more efficient cars. They want plug-in hybrids. They want electric cars with solar panels. Detroit wasn't ready. They're leasing technology from Japan. They missed the boat. Can they get their mojo back? Or would $25 billion just give them more rope?

From the looks of the ads, I'm guessing they don't have a clue.
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