Here is how Tom Friedman ends his 11/11/08 New York Times column:
“Lastly, somebody ought to call Steve Jobs, who doesn’t need to be bribed to do innovation, and ask him if he’d like to do national service and run a car company for a year. I’d bet it wouldn’t take him much longer than that to come up with the G.M. iCar.”
This, I say it with great respect for the great columnist and author, is a deeply mistaken ending to an otherwise strong opinion piece. Sure, it would be briefly entertaining to watch our Steve tear Detroit white boys a few unplanned orifices. But, let’s be serious, it’s one thing to ride back into the company you founded and give it an astoundingly successful new life; it’s a totally different challenge to deal with immensely much more complicated products, cars, not iPods, manufacturing processes, organizations and, above all, the many layers of silt in an old, incompatible culture.
But Friedman’s column raises a broader question: Could Silicon Valley’s high-tech world help GM, Ford ands Chrysler out of today’s tailspin?
Yes, no and it already does.
Take the iCar, I mean the Prius. It’s easy to see it as yet another example of Japanese techno-wizardry taking the lumbering US auto industry by surprise, more than one million sold, a trendsetter. But a closer look shows that a key component, the “Power Split Device” was invented by a US firm, TRW. (More details, a big PDF file, here for the technically curious.) As you’ll see in these Web pages, instead of a “classical” CVT with its belt and pulleys, the Prius uses a very ingenious differential combining the gas engine and two electric motors, all controlled by microprocessors designed and manufactured by other US high-tech firms. In other words: no high-tech handicap against Detroit.
Other examples: Mercedes and BMW have tech research facilities in Palo Alto. Years ago, the technology for Honda’s first clean engine technology, CVCC, was developed at Stanford.
For the No part, the record of highly successful companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Apple, Cisco, Google, Oracle and many others leads one to believe in the Valley’s management expertise. Perhaps. But management isn’t the problem. There is no dearth of dedicated, hard-working management experts in Detroit. Actually, when it comes to process management, they probably have a lesson or two to teach to many high-tech company’s whose high margins and fast growth hides an often cavalier attitude towards operational excellence: “We’re leaders, not managers”.
No, Detroit’s problem isn’t technology or management, it’s culture. As in Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast, a set of under-the-conscience filters between raw perceptions and logical thoughts, habits of the heart and mind. Silicon Valley can’t help there. And, come to think of it, only time and repeated catastrophes will help. What and how long did it take for the French and the Germans to come to today’s peaceful coexistence? Excessive as the parallel might feel, one has to ask how much blood and money must flow to change Detroit’s culture of blaming others for their predicament. The blame question extends to us outside of Detroit. What would we think and do if we were born and raised in that culture?
Rather than leaving on the somber thought of a long, painful road ahead, this quote from Roland Barthes:
“The car is today the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals, the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image, if not in actual use, by an entire population…”
After the successive OPEC episodes of the 1970s, many thought the car was dead; it became more interesting, instead. Today’s crisis will have a similar effect. I hope. –JLG
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