11/1/2002 | 3 MINUTE READ

Marginal: What Matters

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"I don't get too excited about my couch."—Gary Cowger, president, GM North America"It's what we're known for.


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"I don't get too excited about my couch."—Gary Cowger, president, GM North America

"It's what we're known for. We try out a whole lot of ideas and see what works."—Bernard Robertson, senior vice president, Engineering Technologies & Regulatory Affairs, DaimlerChrysler



This is an unusual industry we're in. Of all of the industries that produce durable goods, I suspect that there are few—if any—others wherein the people are passionate about the product. They are people who truly believe that the product is, at some level, cool. And it isn't just the people at the OEMs. No matter what someone is involved with, if it is going into a car or truck, then that person is in the auto industry. That is, even someone working on a support bracket—something that is a long way from a Corvette—probably has a picture of a ‘Vette in his or her cubicle; he or she undoubtedly has something in his or her garage—or hopes to have—that they are exceedingly proud of, and isn't a new lawnmower.

The people in this industry love cars and trucks. Sure, this may sound like one of those sappy Bill Ford, Jr., commercials, but that's how it is. When the power goes out for several hours, I surely miss the functionality of my refrigerator. But I have never been known to wax a fridge. Although I use a computer on a daily basis and have worn off the faces of keys from spending an inordinate amount of time pounding on them, I've never once anthropomorphized a computer. In fact, the only names that I've ever used are words that my publisher won't print.

One of the things that I've discovered as I've traveled around the country is that while there are pockets of people who are enthusiasts, generally speaking, in the words of Paul Simon, "cars are cars." That's it. Just as the slightest burble from Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston make the news in LA, anything from someone at the Big Three tends to make it on the 6 o'clock news here in Detroit. It is how we are.

We get excited about this stuff. Think about it: We work all day building it. We drive it. We read about it. We talk about it. We whip our heads as we drive along and see something new and different. We spend lots of money on it. We watch people drive it professionally.

Furniture is one thing. Cars are something else entirely.



Bernard Robertson was talking about DCX's work in the area of advanced technology. Specifically, things like the array of sensors and interfaces and suchlike that are part and parcel of the 300M IT-Edition (yes, as in "information technology") and the Concierge Jeep Grand Cherokee (with everything from a voice activated key fob to an automatic tire air pump for each wheel).

But I think that his statement also applies to the industry at large. Recently, Scott Painter, chairman of Build-To-Order (Santa Monica, CA), came to visit. Yes, that is "build-to-order" as in vehicles. You place an order for a specifically trimmed car, and in two weeks, it is ready for you. This is not a (tail)pipe dream. They've got TWR Group doing the initial engineering; Deloitte Consulting figuring out the info architecture. If all goes well, there will be BTO vehicles—that will have a brand that will resonate with vehicle aficionados—for the 2005 model year.

Arguably, there is absolutely no need for another car company, yet new plants are going up by some established players. Yet here is a man in his early 30s who is committed to creating a car company for the 21st century. We've seen the drawings. The car is cool. But another car company?

Painter and his colleagues are undoubtedly trying it because that's what we do in this industry: Try things. (At least those who want something to happen do. The others slowly go out of business.)

But there's one more aspect to it: The car that Painter is trying to bring to reality is cool. And that's what really matters.