Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
June 30th, 2008

The Future of the Big Three – Part One

The fact that you know what I mean when I write the two words “Big Three” points to the power of Detroit and U.S. automotive marketing in the last half of the 20th century. The fact that they are no longer the big three in terms of sales in the U.S. points to the reality of the 21st century.

This year Toyota will finally top GM in sales in the U.S. In 2005 GM’s market share was twice that of Toyota’s. Think Prius and fuel economy. GM recently announced the closing of four manufacturing plants in North America and Mexico. Guess what they made there? Trucks and SUVs. Think $4 and soon $5 gallon gasoline. Since 1991, the Ford F-150 pick-up truck was the number one selling vehicle every year in the U.S. Not this year. 2007 will be the last year that a pick up truck will ever be the best selling vehicle in the country. Chrysler, while still getting plenty of style points for their vehicles, has been sold twice and, like Ford and GM is losing billions of dollars. Wall Street is downgrading Big Three stocks. The early 20th century phrase: “What is good for General Motors is good for America” is no longer operative because GM lost their view on what was good for America.

Now, long time readers of this column know that I have written positively about GM in past columns. GM invited me to interview their top executives relative to the Chevrolet Volt electric car and their development of hybrids. In addition they invited me to attend their symposium on the development of new battery technology. I praised and expressed admiration for Larry Burns in “A Man Who Wants to Change the World” primarily because he was and is driven by the vision to make GM vehicles increasingly less dependent on gasoline. Both in this column and in my book “The Shift Age”, I devoted a major part of a chapter to GM and their positive initiative to develop a new battery technology. I believe that the electric car and the hydrogen fuel cell car are the future of US and global vehicle transportation. I believe that the Chevrolet Volt is a very important vehicle, and one that might transform GM. The problem with the Volt is that it will not come to market until 2010. Since GM announced the Volt, both Toyota and Nissan have announced that they would also deliver a pure plug in electric car starting in 2010, so the Volt might have received the early PR on the electric car but now there is question as to whether they will be first with the pure electric car.

As a futurist I think about the future, look at and predict trends and try to see and predict what the future might look like. That is the value I bring to the marketplace and to the planet. It also puts me in the odd position of living a déjà vu life. If I see trends, or the probability of trends happening in the future, when they become reality it feels like déjà vu to me. For example, since I have been predicting triple digit oil prices for two years, all the recent panic news reporting on the subject strikes me as old news. Given that oil was going to dramatically rise in price and will stay there, due in large part to the fact that we are now entering the period of peak oil, it was clear to me that all those huge SUVs and pick-up trucks would soon become dinosaurs or at least extravagant vehicles for the wealthy. It is therefore stunning to me that the Big Three were completely caught off guard when gasoline reached and passed $4 a gallon.

Why didn’t GM, Ford and Chrysler see that? The Prius has been out for 5 years and has had rapidly increasing sales each year. Why didn’t the Big Three take immediate notice of that fact? They did, but they were so addicted to the large per vehicle profits they were making on huge SUVs and trucks that they became almost ostrich like in their world view, plunging their collective heads into the ground of big vehicles equal big profits. The problem that the auto industry has is the long time it takes to bring product to market, which of course to this observer is exactly why they should think about the future. All the time!

The Big Three have been fighting increasing MPG fuel standards for years thinking that this would help them continue to profit from huge vehicles. Another way of saying that is that they were going against the best interests of the U.S. from a geo-political point of view and they were going against protecting their own market share as the Japanese auto companies were only too ready to give the American consumer what they wanted, which were cars that provided high MPG and low greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Congress finally stopped listening to the Big Three and recently passed a bill that mandated increasing fleet fuel economy to 35MPG in the years ahead. There are many countries in the world that already have that level in place today. In fact, it was pointed out by some observers that the U.S. could reach that level immediately if everyone went out and bought a Honda whose fleet average is 35MPG.

To be clear, I want the Big Three to be prosperous, profitable and to provide America with millions of vehicles. I strongly think that the reason that they are in the mess they are in is that they are so steeped in the history of America’s car culture that they are driving down the freeway of the automotive business looking in the rear view mirror. In the next column I will offer up some future thinking ways they can once again align themselves with “What is good for America”.

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