Ostensibly, this is a column about cars (or trucks, or SUVs, or whatever; vehicles, as it were). So, to that end I'm writing about this vehicle named "Ironman" (my apologies to both Stan and Ozzy) that was shown by a company called "Model E" (hailing from Fremont, CA; more on it later) at this past October's SEMA show in Las Vegas. Ironman is essentially a welded stainless steel spaceframe, its only body panel being the hood. It will be powered by some sort of a V8 in a mid-engine configuration with full-time 4WD. It has a wheelbase of 103 in. with a 63.8 in.-track. Ground clearance ranges from 8-13.5 in. Approach and departure angles are 45° and 42°, respectively. Oh, and acceleration 0-60 mph is "less than 6.0 seconds." (Must have been a steep hill.) The Ironman concept was built by Rod Millen Special Vehicles (Huntington Beach, CA), and although the many Model E people at its unveiling seemed very proud of this fact, Millen himself was not in attendance. Instead, he of Toyota Tacoma Pike's Peak Hillclimbing fame was on the other side of Vegas hobnobbing with his corporate sponsor. Model E seems to think that it's going to start building these things in 2002 and that you (or more likely someone not quite as smart as you) will be willing to shell out $82,500 for one (the minimum security deposit being a mere $10,000). Presumably, doors, roof, and other body panels are optional.
So by now you're probably asking yourself why I am even writing about this overwhelmingly irrelevant concept vehicle (other than to make fun of it)? Because, unfortunately, the people at Model E seem to know very well how to say all the right things that I want to hear about the automotive future. They throw around phrases like "Internet built-to-order vehicle" and "Subscribe & Drive." They talk about zero asset production, modular assembly, direct-to-consumer sales, pull systems, mass customization, transforming the supply chain, and micro-factories. They drop Jim Womack's name and impress Business 2.0 writers who pen great feature stories (but apparently know little to anything of the realities of the auto industry). Of course, none of this has anything to do with the ludicrous Ironman, at least nothing that the people at Model E can explain.
Ostensibly, Model E is a car company. Ostensibly, it is a car company that I would like, as its ostensible mission is to use the Internet to overthrow the current automotive power structure. How? Ostensibly, it would: (1) Directly communicate with consumers in the design process to produce vehicles that are desirable and, more importantly, pre-sold. (2) Use a networked supply chain to produce these largely modular vehicles, such that Model E itself has little-to-no capital investment. (3) Deliver the product directly to consumers using a subscription-based service model that takes care of everything including insurance. What's particularly annoying about this business plan is that it's: (1) Possible. (2) Probable. (3) Unlikely to be accomplished by Model E.
There are others out there that are trying to do many of the same things, including even some of the big car companies. No doubt in my mind, these ideas are indeed the future of transportation, the future of mobility. But most of the people that I see who are trying to make these ideas happen spend their time talking about how they're changing processes, developing new manufacturing technologies, creating new materials, programming new software, and managing new organizational schemes—all the stuff you read about in this magazine every month.