Sunday, October 7, 2012

Only innovation can really save the car business, and Apple has the juice to do it.

Generations X and Y grew up chauffeured in boring minivans and SUVs. The midsize cars in which these kids munched goldfish and raisins were virtual clones and brands were indistinguishable.  And now we wonder why those same kids aren’t buying cars? They weren’t inspired by Corvettes, Camaros, GTOs, Firebirds, Mustangs, Barracudas and the like. The 1990s and the 21st century have produced a lot of snoring wheels.

It’s not surprising car guys are predicting that sometime in the next twenty years or so, we may actually see demand for autos decline in the United States. When boomers hang up their keys, you can expect car sales to plummet. Unless, of course, wheels become cool again to their kids and grandkids.

How does Detroit reverse the declining trend? I think the answer is for GM or another carmaker to team up with Apple. The Silicon Valley super-brand has a knack for getting people of all ages to pour money into their products, and dump perfectly good gadgets for newer generations of the same technology. And with its stock value at about $650 per share, the tech giant has the bucks to invest an automotive line of products.

Perhaps an exclusively electric power plant, unlike the Volt, with automated highway capability, active-passive integrated safety technologies to make crashes virtually impossible. Of course, any Apple vehicle would be an icon for design and a real head-turner.

There’s a profound irony here. Steve Job’s adoptive dad, Paul Jobs, was a machinist who Steve described as “a genius with his hands.” The senior Jobs loved to tinker with autos. He’d buy used cars, fix them up and sell them for a profit, frequently schooling young Steve on Detroit style and industrial design.  Deep down, Apple has wheels in its DNA.

I’m only half kidding about Apple marrying an auto manufacturer. There was a time when GM and Ford produced home appliances in addition to cars. Remember the Frigidaire and Philco brands? All that is old is new again. I predict Apple is going to hook up with some other consumer products company. They could probably make anything that works, work better.

Innovative darling, Tesla Motors, is a thriving car company that has designed very hot-looking and expensive electric chariots. The S Model starts at about $50, 000. The carmaker recently announced plans to expand its network of proprietary charging stations to blanket the U.S. in the next two years.  They currently have six power plug-in devices across California that can fully charge a Tesla in one hour. That delivers 300 miles of driving. A half-hour provides 150 miles of Tesla juice. The technology is getting better and electric is going to change the way we think about commuting, especially with gas reaching five bucks a gallon this week in the Golden State.

And Tesla models look nothing like gas-powered clones mainstream carmakers churn out. They’re sexy.

My suggestion is that GM plug into Apple before Tesla or someone else does. I’ll bet Ford wishes they had put Macs in their cars instead of the Microsoft Sync.

Today’s kids pay a bundle for smartphones, tablets and monthly fees for continuous connectivity. If you want them to fall in love with your ride, it has to take them places the information highway can’t. Remember the way the rumble of a 327 V8 engine could send electricity up your spine? America is ready for another jolt of excitement and liberty from mediocre design and paralyzing prices at the pump.

It’s time for Detroit to plug in to what America loves best. It's the power of I, as in innovation and  iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad. Now imagine iDrive. 

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