3/8/2009 | 4 MINUTE READ

There's No Business Like...

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One of the images for the graphic-novel-turned-film The Watchmen that is opening this month is of a bright yellow smiley face button with a liquid red drop of blood splattered on it. Clearly, someone is not so happy. And at the risk of being too histrionic about it, it strikes me that that image is not wholly inappropriate for the North American International Auto Show that was held in mid-January in a bone-numbingly cold Detroit that was blanketed in far more snow than was necessary or normal. While attending the media preview of the show, I encountered more than one out-of-towner-several of whom were there because they wanted to watch the industry in the same way that some people like to look at car crashes-who muttered something about "global warming," as though the frigid temps proved the point that it is a myth. (A slight digression: Let's say that the climate change is a natural occurrence, something that happens every x-number of years. It just is. Further, let's say that while things like CO2 from smokestacks, tailpipes, and burning dung do have an effect, it is a minimal compared with the natural occurrence. Let's say that you know someone who is fat. Morbidly obese. Would you feed that person a Double Whopper with cheese and large fries every day? It might be convenient (use the drive through) and inexpensive (comparatively speaking) to do so. Far less trying than trying to put together something with fewer calories and the associated cardiological cloggers. But you know that it is undoubtedly worth the extra effort to help your friend out, even if it is a small thing. So isn't reducing carbon emissions worth it, too?)
There are two ways of looking at NAIAS. One is like the smiley face button sans blood. It was, like any show in any industry, a veritable bright, shiny candy store for car and truck lovers. As has been the case for the past few years, the concept cars-the Lincoln Concept C, the Cadillac Converj, the Audi Sportback, etc.-were all pretty much pragmatic: you can imagine that these could be put into production sooner, rather than later. And there was the request array of production metal, with one notable exception, Nissan, and a few smaller companies, like Mitsubishi.
The second way is with the plasma, cells and platelets. While the staged reveals were far less extravagant than in the past, let's face it: Auto shows have long been winding down from when the women in evening dresses rotated on turntables along with the sheet metal. But more to the point, it seemed that many of the executives that I'd had the chance to talk with were all less ebullient about conditions than their PR staffs would have undoubtedly liked them to be. The only exception were the designers, all of whom said, in effect, that they knew what the future holds because they're creating it in their studios, so they feel pretty good about what's going on. Which leads me to believe it is probably better to be in design than any other organizational function for purposes of even-keeled blood pressure if for no other reason.
The auto show was held not all that many weeks after the executives of the Detroit Three had had their collective noses bloodied by some in Congress. It seems that there are two fundamental hooks to the money made available: 1. That labor costs be in line with the transplants; 2. That the domestic automakers do a better job of creating fuel-efficient vehicles. At the time of the auto show, when there were the introductions of hybrids from seemingly everyone and full-electrics from niche players like Tesla to full-line builders like Ford to even the Chinese company BYD, gas prices were taking a dip. They were not falling because there had been a gusher, but simply because the world-wide economic slowdown has decreased demand for oil. When things pick up, the price will go up, presumably (assuming that whole supply-demand thing works). And the auto execs almost to a person seemed rather nervous that U.S. consumers were going to turn back to full-size pickups and SUVs and leave the small cars and the non-combustion-engine centric cars rusting on dealer lots. An exception was Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales, who was reasonably bullish on the prospects for hybrids; Toyota is rolling out with the third-gen Prius, so he has reason to be optimistic. But I think part of it is that Lentz, unlike some of the others, has a whole lot of experience with alternative powertrains and understands their place in the market.
The future of this industry is being written now. It is better written in the market than in Congress. But unless there is a veritable superheroic effort made by the auto executives, there will be more than a drop of blood on the not-so-smiley face of the industry.