Monday, July 07, 2008

The death of the automobile

Americans have had a century-long love affair with the automobile. Ever since Henry Ford introduced his Model T, granting motoring access to the working masses, the automobile has been interchangeable with the American experience.

Around the same time that Henry Ford masterminded the assembly line process of automobile manufacturing, General Motors was creating its own iconic brand, Chevrolet. Even today, people classify themselves as “Chevrolet,” or “Ford” people in their loyalty to the competing brands.

General Motors, as American as baseball and apple pie, is in serious trouble. With its stock price at a half-century low, GM is faced with the prospect of cutting many of its eight various brands. Rivals Ford and Chrysler have recognized that being smaller is necessary if they have hopes of surviving the restructuring of the U.S. auto industry. While some GM executives and board members have talked about the need to possibly jettison their Saab brand, much the way Ford unloaded Land Rover and Jaguar, Chief Executive Richard Waggoner has resisted.

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal by John Stoll intimates that the company’s structure, still overly heavy with mid-level managers, many responsible for GM’s recent woes, is to blame for the company’s inability to reach consensus and make quick decisions. Consequently, GM’s continued listing and Waggoner’s critics are legion.

Ironically, the company has put a great deal of import in the development of the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid. Could GM, still operating as an automotive dinosaur, see its fortunes intertwined with lithium-ion batteries?

Oil’s escalation in price will require new ways of thinking, from what our future cars look and how they drive, to possible new models of transportation beyond our current, one-car, one-person way of doing things.

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