Politics has overtaken life. One need look no further than the auto industry to see that this is so, and how destructive this situation can be. Automakers are in business to provide transportation that fits the needs and desires of its customers, and—by doing this—to make enough money to survive and prosper. They also are responsible for helping to mitigate the problems that arise from the use of their product. That automakers haven’t always done so places the industry in its current situation: regulated on every front, mistrusted by legislators and consumers alike, and distracted by battles that are—at best—tertiary to their mission.
If any automaker—or the industry as a whole, for that matter—believes it can silence its critics or “spin” public opinion in such a way that the stains will be cleansed from its soul, think again. No matter what is done, it will never be enough for the critics. If you have the cleanest vehicle on the road, they’ll question why the rest of your fleet—and the rest of the industry—isn’t as clean. And variations on that argument will be used for safety, fuel economy, and whatever else is on the agenda. By its past actions, the industry gave these folks power, and they’re not about to give it back. Can you blame them? Imparting guilt is a real power trip.
For example, a little over three years ago I was at the annual SAE meeting at The Greenbrier. There I witnessed young engineers nearly in tears as they confessed their ignorance and cursed their culpability for producing a product that is so environmentally “dangerous.” From the dais, speaker after speaker harped about sustainability, and some even chastised the crowd for using materials and processes that were threatening the environment and—how predictable—future generations. None of the industry folks present said the first thing about the strides made to reduce harmful processes, improve recyclability, or investigate new materials capable of benignly going from “cradle-to-cradle.” Instead, they stood idly by while their critics scolded them for not having solved the problem, or—are we really surprised?—for not inviting their organization to the party. Even more brazenly, the zealots suggested the industry couldn’t be trusted to “do the right thing” without the help of sober, environmentally conscious outsiders like themselves to oversee the engineers’ work. And though the silence of the industry leaders may have been designed to avoid confrontation and gain some environmental brownie points, it obviously confused the engineers on hand as to where their duty lies.
The work these engineers should be concerned with, however, has little to do with sustainable materials. That job belongs to the research labs within their organizations, which must prove new methods viable before the advanced development team proves whether or not they are ready for production. It’s a process the critics choose to ignore—unless it results in a recall or potential lawsuit. Then they are all too ready to pounce on an automaker’s negligence for putting a potentially dangerous product on the road. Designing and building the best vehicle possible given the constraints imposed by the company and the customer—and breaking free of the mindless, fiscally driven “me-too” thinking that offers the customer no real choice—is the sworn duty of an engineer. For without it, the enterprise from which they draw their salary will weaken or cease to exist.