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Thoughts on Our Automotive Future

Having just returned from what, for me, is the best car weekend all year long (The annual McPherson College C.A.R.S. Show), my mind is swimming with the vivacity of our automotive heritage, and the growth in interest of preserving that heritage. With that, I think this article needs to be revisited.

This is in response to an article Bob Lutz wrote for Automotive News in November, 2017. It can be found here:

In the automotive world, there are a number of titans, dead and alive. Henry Ford, Bill Mitchell, Harley Earl, Soichiro Honda, Carroll Shelby, Enzo Ferrari, Ferdinand Porsche, Ferruccio Lamborghini, and Walter Chrysler to name more than a few. Every one of these gentlemen had a tenacity, work ethic, and personality seldom seen among the great unwashed. There are still some giants of the auto industry with us today. One of them is Bob Lutz.

Mr. Lutz, a Swiss immigrant to the US, has been a United States Marine pilot, earned a bachelor’s degree in Production Management, and honorary doctorates in both management and law. He has been the Executive VP of sales for BMW, and had a hand in developing both the 3-Series and BMW’s Motorsport division. He was Executive Vice President at Ford, helping to develop a number of iconic models in both Europe and the US. As head of Chrysler’s Global Product Development, Lutz spearheaded development of both the Viper and the LH platform. In 2001, Lutz joined General Motors as Vice Chairman of Product Development. In this capacity, he effectively changed the face of the GM product line, pushing forth the return of the Pontiac GTO, the Chevrolet Camaro, and introducing the Cadillac CTS, Saturn Sky, Pontiac Solstice, Cadillac SRX, and Chevrolet Beat. Few other people know the auto world like Bob Lutz.

I give this thumbnail of Mr. Lutz because it is incredible to think one person has accomplished so much (this is a VERY abbreviated list of his accomplishments). It also establishes Mr. Lutz as one of the world’s foremost automotive authorities. When Mr. Lutz speaks, the car world listens. With his article, published November 5th, 2017, in Automotive News, I think he got it right….and wrong.

Mr. Lutz posits we are approaching the end of the auto world as we know it, with all transportation to transition to autonomous “standardized modules” within 15-20 years. The modules will be largely operated by companies like Uber or Lyft, or their equivalents. The modules will operate on a pay-per-use basis in most cases, with only the elites owning personal modules. As soon as autonomous vehicle usage approaches 20-30%, the end will be in sight. The populace will have five years to either get their cars off the road and sell them for scrap, or trade them on a module.

Although it is never stated in Mr. Lutz’s article, the assumption is all of these modules, the ones owned by transportation companies, freight companies, and by individuals, will run on electricity. This is the first hurdle. In the United States, as in many other nations, there is neither the electrical grid nor the generating capacity to power all of our transportation. In fact, there isn’t enough of either to power 1/10th of our transportation needs. We do not possess the capacity (at this time) to switch all of our cars over to electric power, and we won’t for quite some time.

The push to convert to electric cars is largely an environmental one, if in name only. Our power plants are still largely coal or natural gas-fired. Only 19.7% of the power plants in the US utilize nuclear power. Converting at this time simply digs one hole to fill in another.

The transition to electric cars will also require a complete upgrade to the nation’s electrical grid. It’s true that to charge a Tesla, you can do it slowly at a rate of 15-20 amps on a 110v service, or 20-50 amps on a 220v service. That is for a single car. Imagine everyone on your street attempting to charge two cars overnight, every night. The demand on the electrical grid would be overwhelming. This is, of course, still assuming personal vehicle ownership, not utilizing transportation modules.

It is also safe to assume that most people will not be willing to give up the control and free will of individual car ownership to jump into some ‘pod’ that offers no control to its occupants. Most people who have owned their own vehicles will have to adjust to both the idea of having an electric car, and having a car with partial autonomy before they give up more traditional transportation. This transition, in my opinion, will take at least two generations to fully implement. There will have to be a population of adults who have never had transportation in which they were even partially involved in piloting.

A point that is not addressed is the inevitable collapse of the auto industry, and all the attendant industries involved. It would be impossible, inconceivable, to imagine the death of all the companies that supply parts, steel, aluminum, rubber, plastics, tires, tooling, interior components, airbags, electronics, batteries, glass, and all manner of goods to manufacturers. Think of everything that goes into a car. Think of all the people who work in the industry: the factory workers, management, dealerships, sales people, service techs, finance people, banks and other lenders, advertising and marketing firms, parts suppliers, modifiers, custom shops, every bit of the aftermarket (imagine every display and seller at SEMA gone), parts stores, mechanics, car washes, detail shops, oil change shops, refineries, gas stations, convenience stores that sell gas, truck stops, tire shops, and the list goes on. In 2015, it was estimated that automobile production and parts suppliers employed nearly 910,000 people, and accounted for nearly 3.5% of the Gross Domestic Product. I don’t think we are going to kill that off in 15 years.

Something else that is not addressed is our love of cars. The United States has a relationship with the automobile that cannot be denied or ignored. Cars represent our freedom, individuality, and our passion. You don’t have to be an enthusiast or hobbyist to have strong feelings about your transportation. In this country, it’s almost expected.

Motorcyclists are another segment that go without any mention. Riders may be in the vast minority when compared with cars, but there were nearly 8.5 million motorcycles registered in the US in 2011, and the number has only grown since. Think how many associated businesses and industries there are involved to support that number.

With all of that said, this is what I think Mr. Lutz got right: Everything except the timing. I believe we will eventually transition to fully autonomous, fully electric transportation. I think eventually all transportation will become largely autonomous. However, it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Nothing happens in a vacuum. All the companies that will be displaced by this transition, and people who work for them, will have to adjust for the coming change. I fully believe this will take a minimum of three generations. You will have to have an adult populace who have a different perception and understanding of transportation than we do now. Too many of us place an enormous value on the freedom of where and how we commute, travel, and enjoy our cars. Change will come. It will take time. And when it does, I hope I have long been on the other side of the dirt.

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