When I was a kid, my brother and I subscribed to Boys Life magazine.
In the back of every issue was a small black and white advertisement for a kit you could use to construct your own hovercraft. We begged my parents to let us send away for that kit. I would harbor fantasies of soaring above my town on the way to school or the movies while all my friends and teachers watched in awe. With that kit, I would be able to enter the future while they remained hopelessly grounded in the present. It was a glorious future of hovercars, democratized air travel, space flight and transporters.
Needless to say, my parents never let me buy that kit. And like Calvin’s much anticipated, but never delivered “beanie-copter,” my transportation utopia never came to be. To this day, I’m still riding in cars with wheels, still traveling to the airport, still taking the train and subways to work (and they’re still as slow as ever).
No, the future I inherited was very different. Instead of the promised freedom of movement, I encountered a future that offered freedom of information. What began as the “World Wide Web” and the “Information Superhighway” is rapidly evolving into a world of netbooks and iPhones, constantly connected through the magic of wireless technology. In the next year or so, we’ll begin to see devices that can receive power wirelessly as well. (Eat your heart out Nikola Tesla.) In the end, it was our devices and ideas that severed the umbilical cord. Our feet, and cars, remain firmly planted on the ground.
Predicting the Future
Human beings have a particular bias towards predicting futures that looks remarkably similar to the present. As a result, the way we think about our future is radically different from our previous conceptions. Modern futurists talk about technology as a gateway to the world. They fantasize technology so portable you can wear it or embed it into our very bodies. We hear about artificial intelligence and computers that can understand and interact in our language. We hear about a world where all data is collected onto a single networked entity, the sum of our intelligence as a species (where it will be indexed by Google).
That said, human beings are remarkably terrible at predicting the future. We get nearly everything wrong, from the little things like the weather or what sandwich will make me happiest at lunch time to big things like “will I love this person the rest of my life?” or the long term consequences of today’s political decisions. Predicting the future is no exception. There wasn’t anything remotely like the internet at the 1964 World’s Fair, was there?
What’s Ailing Our Automotive Industry
Still, in the world of consumer perception, the accuracy of our predictions is inconsequential. What is important is the ability to captivate and excite consumers. And this, I believe, is devastating Detroit’s ability to arouse the kind of passion for their cars that they could in their heyday.
When I listen to people opine about the ongoing auto industry collapse, their diatribes are always punctuated with the same sentiments. Antiquated labor agreements, a lack of innovation, out of touch with consumer wants, a failure to adapt to a globalized marketplace and an eco-conscious consumer. My grandfather, an engineer by trade, liked to remind me that except for the computers, almost every feature introduced to the modern automobile was on Henry Ford’s drawing board back in the 1930’s. The overall sentiment seems to be that Detroit has languished in a dirty, automotive past while the rest of the world moved forward into a wired, greener future.
And that’s a startling fact. For years, the automotive industry had a lock on “the future.” Cars were built to look like spaceships, airplanes and fighter jets. Logos were peppered with images of speed and travel. Taglines got so blunt as to assert that a Ford was “in your future with a future built in.” Even today, we are still reminded that Saabs are “Born from Jets” and driving a Lincoln Navigator is like commandeering a rocket ship. The future was a place we were going to and our cars were going to take us there.
But somewhere along the line, transportation lost its sex appeal. Somewhere along the line, driving stopped being fun and started being an annoying part of our commute. Air travel became a hassle to be avoided whenever possible (both for personal and financial reasons). The airlines making a splash today are the ones who gave up on romancing flight and promise to alleviate the pain of flying. Once our ideas were free, we began to wonder if transportation was really necessary at all.
Reinventing the Automobile
None of this is to say that Detroit doesn’t have other (potentially larger) problems. But in the court of consumer perception, the rules of the game changed and the future got away from the auto industry. So the question is, how can Detroit adapt their product to remain relevant, not to the lives of consumers (we still desperately need our autos), but to their imaginations?
There are some promising ideas floating around. The introduction of hybrid cars was a bold step forward, shifting the focus away from transportation to social responsibility. Ford’s Sync, iPod connectors, and built in GPS systems are a step in the right direction. But they could go further.
If the iPhone has taught us anything, it’s that modern tools need to be flexible and customizable enough to accommodate the needs of a diverse range of users. We really don’t need a new way to interact with our cars, what we really need is a new way to interact with our lives. I’m inspired by Fiat’s eco:Drive, essentially a Nike+ for green driving. The initiative drastically alters the relationship between car and driver. The car becomes less of a way to get somewhere and more of a connection to a similarly minded community.
Detroit’s design challenge is not really to build a better car, but to build a vehicle better suited to our information heavy, eco-conscious age. The New York Times reported yesterday that cellphone distractions cause 2,600 deaths every year and 330,000 accidents resulting in moderate to severe injuries. Our inability to manage our information is quite literally killing us — which sounds like a great challenge and opportunity for automakers. Similar to how the world is reorienting itself to accept the mobile phone as our primary computing and lifestyle management device, I often find myself wondering what an iCar might feel like.
This blog tends to be read by the digital community. Building the wired future is what we do every day. What do you think? I hear Detroit is looking for some fresh ideas.Image Credit: Bill Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes