There are times when things seem suddenly to change with blinding speed. The Renaissance comes to mind, or what we call the Industrial Revolution, or the invention of antibiotics.
These times of great change start slowly, and then they effloresce or explode quite amazingly. It is possible that we are witnessing, amidst these times of economic upheaval and distress, just such a great leap forward in one of our basic industries: the automobile business. For the last 50 or so years, the two trends that have dominated the car biz have been the rise of non-US companies that could design & build better than the Big 3 — and the consolidation of the US biz that effectively eliminated all original thought, at least inside the walls of GM, Ford & Chrysler.
There were some hints of things changing, but they were hard to see as harbingers of change. Gasoline problems that started with the Arab Oil Embargo in 1974, and have continued to bounce around ever since. The emergence of places like Pasadena’s Art Center as hotspots of car design, as opposed to Detroit (although http://www.latimes.com/classified/automotive/highway1/la-fi-cardesign15-2008dec15,0,4648493.story). GM founded Saturn. Asian car companies kept taking more and more market share by making better and better versions of the same old cars, adding the occasional new feature, like the Kerensky-like or Tom Paine-like decision at Toyota to go with the Prius.
Of course the Big 3 are in a state of near-collapse or perhaps near-death, depending on how you look at it. But the hot-house of the US car industry has created a really astonishing array of new ideas, new companies, new technologies, and free thinking. Leaving aside the big, well-known trends, because they have been explored by better people than we (the development of NiMH and Li-ion batteries, for instance, although the PbC battery deserves a lot of attention at http://www.axionpower.com) — we find ourselves astonished on an almost daily basis by the verve and vivacity of the US auto industry, which has been sending up new seedlings literally all over the place. It is like what happens in the California desert after a fierce Pacific hurricane — hundreds of miles of wildflowers that blanket the horizon.
Some of these companies are getting a fair share of public awareness, perhaps due to shrewd promotional skills. Any discussion has to start with a company like Tesla (http://www.teslamotors.com/), whose young chairman, PayPal founder Elon Musk, seems to crop up everywhere, including leading the line of beggers and pleaders for federal bailout dollars. But Tesla is well-covered in the media, and no need to spend a lot of time on them here.
More interesting and less flashy is Bright Automotive (http://www.brightautomotive.com/), whose CEO, John Waters, shared a CNBC spot with Musk a little over a week ago: http://www.cnbc.com/id/15840232?video=1001327013&play=1. Bright’s team and parentage are impressive; it is basically a spin-off of the egghead-ish Rocky Mountain Institute, and is headquartered near Indianapolis, which makes sense, given Waters’ tenure with GM and the elderly giant of auto parts, Delphi Corp, whose ill-fated attempt at making new-fangled batteries ended up being sold to upstart maker, Ener1 Inc (Nasdaq:HEV, http://www.ener1.com/). Bright is planning to introduce its first high-design affordable 100 mpg plug-in hybrid this May 13-16 at a show in Stavanger, Norway (24th Electric Vehicle Symposium http://en.energia-sapiens.eu/news/EVS24cfp.pdf).
But look also at Santa Rosa, CA-based ZAP Electric Cars (ZAP = Zero Air Pollution; http://www.zapworld.com/), which will introduce its 100-mile range Alias (http://www.zapworld.com/electric-vehicles/electric-cars/zap-alias) this very weekend in New Orleans. That sexy beast lists at $35,000 (vs a price about 4 times that for the Tesla 2-seater).
Or look at the Aptera 3-wheeler (officially a motorcycle, but clearly not a motorcycle), written up in a companion article in today’s SmallCapWorld (http://smallcapworld.wordpress.com/2009/01/24/the-car-of-the-future-could-be-a-three-wheeler/)
We have written before about the “neighborhood” or “campus” cars that do not reach highway speeds, but only need a 3-prong plug to drive 40 or so miles to school or the market and back at 25-30 mph. See the Army program at http://smallcapworld.wordpress.com/2009/01/13/army-ev-program-to-save-carbon-bucks-and-boost-a-chrysler-division/. And look at Universal Studios at http://smallcapworld.wordpress.com/2009/01/08/movie-studio-goes-green-green-monsters-sure-but-green-cars-u-betcha/
This revolution/evolution is not restricted to the US. See our article on India and the UK: http://smallcapworld.wordpress.com/2009/01/05/new-electric-cars-from-uk-india-push-range-and-availability-forward/
We plan to continue to run articles on this fascinating morph of the auto industry from a trio of deaf, staid zombies to a gaggle of imaginative, small, idea-factories with the flexibility to create cars that people may actually buy. And then the Asian car companies can copy THOSE.