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Marginal: The Future Is Now

You can put off lots of things. But even the most masterful procrastinator faces the future.

In this issue, executive editor Chris Sawyer takes a look at what we loosely call "The Future" around here.

In this issue, executive editor Chris Sawyer takes a look at what we loosely call "The Future" around here. It's slightly longer in the distance than the day after tomorrow—and that is not a veiled reference to The Day After Tomorrow, the film that ostensibly shows us that as a result of our contributions to global warming, the only thing that is going to save us is. . .Dennis Quaid. Yet in point of fact, as we look at the future, environmental regulations and fuel costs are two primary issues that must be addressed—sooner rather than later. One of the most important books written about the present and future of the auto industry, Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future by Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran (12 Books; $27.99), puts U.S. politicians in something of a Twilight Zone: "Washington, D.C., has, in recent years, been trapped in a time warp. Policies are made in a fantasy world in which oil is still plentiful and trouble-free, the world always needs more roads and highways for ever more SUVs, and global warming is a harmless curiosity at best." Given that the authors of Zoom have day jobs writing for The Economist, not Mother Jones, it is probably a good bet that they aren't the sorts of people who might be among those ordinarily numbered among the eco-zealots. They go so far as to maintain, "The Toyota Prius is not the car of the future," and go on to explain that hybrids "prolong oil addiction, though they make it easer to live with it." The simple fact is as follows: Some organizations/companies/governments are going to address the issues related to both energy and the environment. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that the traditional auto industry is exactly zealous in this regard, according to Carson and Vaitheeswaran. They write: "The race is on to fuel the car of the future. From Silicon Valley"—from whence things like the Telsa plug-in performance car has come—"to Shanghai"—where the mindset in the Jiading district is "What took Detroit one hundred years, say local officials, they are trying to do in just a few years"—"policy and technology innovators are zooming ahead of Big Oil and Detroit in reinventing the juice and the jalopy. While the dinosaurs dawdle, giants from other industries—ranging from GE to DuPont to Wal-Mart to Virgin—are swooping in, hoping to seize the clean energy future." Now I don't think that anyone would argue that GE, DuPont, and Wal-Mart are non-mainstream companies, and while Sir Richard Branson may seem to many people like their eccentric British uncle, he is the billionaire eccentric uncle, so he earns more than a little street cred—Wall Street, that is.

I've talked to a number of people in town about The Future of the auto industry. And quite frankly, I find it all a bit disappointing. With certain exceptions, like Larry Burns at GM, the company's funny, engaging, and amazingly smart visionary (his real title is vice president of Research & Development and Strategic Planning), there is pretty much (a) a focus on the near-term, which is manifest on immediate profitability, which tends to take the form of cost-cutting, and (b) the idea that American drivers pretty much want what they've always wanted, and maybe they'll compromise in buying an SUV with a two-mode hybrid system or possibly a diesel. In other words, this is no big deal. Sure gas prices are high and will stay that way. But consumers, they tell me, will simply adjust and keep buying what they've pretty much always bought. But these automotive people seem not to be aware of what's going on over on Main Street. What president and CEO said this on January 23, 2008, to more than 7,000 managers of his company: "I have been talking with the heads of the major auto manufacturers over the past few weeks. And I have been asking them if there is a place for ____________ in the hybrid electric or plug-in car market, so our customers do not have to spend so much money filling up their gas tanks." That was Lee Scott of Wal-Mart. That's right. He knows that people who shop at Wal-Mart are taking it in the pocket in a way that is not tenable in the long run. "Maybe there isn't room for Wal-Mart in this right now," Scott continued. "But something tells me that there may be some role for us in the future, and we are going to continue taking a look at this."

Something tells me that if thinking and actions in Detroit don't change in short order, maybe there won't be much of a role for them in the future. 

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