In the early Eighties, the car dealers’ association would hold a breakfast for the city’s new car salespeople as the Fort Worth Auto Show opened. To motivate the dealers’ staffs who would be greeting the public at the show, those breakfasts featured guest speakers. Only one year the association hired a so-called futurist. He immediately predicted that, in the very near future, the public would reject the existing car-buying process — and we would all end up in the unemployment line.
Customers, said this automotive Kreskin, would learn to demonstrate cars to themselves. They would order them without anyone’s help, and their car would show up quickly at their local dealership. Oh, and each car would be unpainted until it arrived; only then would the customer choose the color, and a special paint booth at every dealership would do that final customization.
The scrambled eggs that morning were bad enough, but then to have to listen to this wizard was just too much. First, he didn’t motivate anyone, much less inspire us to see whether our profession’s end really was near. But second, anyone who understood how the system of selling and manufacturing cars worked in America would have realized immediately that this speaker was completely clueless.
For one thing, EPA regulations on sealed paint booths were tough and about to get tougher. The idea that every car dealer in this country would buy such an automated system was nuts. Still is. Further, if you’d already picked out your car’s interior, why wouldn’t you have chosen the correct exterior paint color at the same time and let the factory do it more efficiently? Not one of his predictions came to pass.
But we were apparently not the only ones listening to this pitch. After all, except for the part about painting new cars at dealerships, this was the original plan for Saturn: No salesmen, self-demonstration, order on a computer and the car would arrive within the week at the dealership. Didn’t quite work out that way.
Still, someone sometimes comes along who can tell us where we are going in the future. Peter Drucker, the great management guru, was often brilliantly perceptive on where our economy was headed next. He correctly foretold the rise of the information age and the movement to privatization and decentralization.
But Drucker did this by looking at verifiable facts and simply extrapolating their logical conclusion. One great example was his prediction for 2100 on populations around the world. Using known birth/death rates per country, he said that if things didn’t change in 100 years there would be no Spaniards or Italians left, while Japan’s population in 2100 would be nowhere near the 124 million it was at the time. Drucker also predicted the slow demise of the blue-collar worker, still the subject of much media and political commentary. And so I found it greatly interesting when the Automotive News carried a story about Ford’s in-house futurist, Sheryl Connelly, on December 7, 2016. And while that column was certainly a promo piece, for me it delivered more flashbacks to that new car dealers’ association breakfast than to any of Peter Drucker’s books.
E.J. Schultz, who penned this fawning column about Ms. Connelly’s brilliance, wrote, “A few years back, for instance, she predicted that there would be a backlash to the fact that technology has enabled people to be constantly connected.” Huh? I’ve seen every one of the Terminator movies, including the ones that the movie studios shouldn’t have green-lit; and they made clear that a backlash to technology would inevitably happen.
In fact, it already has. When Ford first introduced its MyFord Touch system, so many customers found it problematical that it hurt Ford’s quality surveys and customer satisfaction polls. Another great example was the first BMW 7 Series that featured the iDrive system. Numerous customers had always purchased this exceptional Bavarian flagship sedan, and they preordered that new high tech model. But, when the cars were delivered and salespeople were showing how owners could alter 900 different functions using the iDrive system, many simply decided to get something less complicated. And all of this happened years before Ms. Connelly’s prediction of a future backlash against technology.
I forgot; this was a fluff piece celebrating Connelly’s perceptive surveys and “clairvoyance.” The Automotive News column “proves” that she’s ahead of the curve in talking about the backlash to technology; she’s quoted as saying, “Probably the unsung hero of that [Bluetooth-enabled devices] platform is that Do-Not-Disturb button, which allows people to shut off incoming calls and shut off reminders, e-mails and text messages.” Wow, she predicted a technology backlash and Ford proves it was spot on with an on-off button. I wonder why they didn’t think of that in the Terminator movies when Skynet went nuts. However, after reading that bit I suddenly realized my iPhone has an on-off switch, too. Does that mean I’m rejecting the technology in my smartphone? Or does it mean Apple felt there would be a technology backlash against their phone and decided to preempt it with an off switch, too? Come to think of it, every thing that uses electricity has always had an on-off switch on it. Hey, predicting the future is actually fun.
Tell Me What I Want to Hear
It gets better. As further proof that Ford is super connected to what will come next, Schultz treats us to another prediction from five years ago, when the Ford report noticed “more mistrust of corporations, governments and media.” Then the newer report adds, “Where truth was once indisputable and often self evident, today’s ‘truths’ are often heavily influenced by perceptions and reinforced by like-minded viewpoints.” Connelly claims her poll shows that fully 65 percent of individuals are “less likely to consider opposing viewpoints.” This is news?
Does anyone remember Ralph Nader’s 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed? At that point public trust in corporations, particularly our own auto industry, was at an all-time low. In response, to save the industry from itself by ensuring certain basic safety criteria in all future vehicles, we created the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Does anyone remember the Love Canal contamination of the Seventies, or that our rivers caught fire in the Sixties because of industrial pollution? Those events all hurt public trust in corporations. Maybe Vietnam, Watergate or Iran Contra comes to mind when one discusses events when the public lost confidence in our government. And Nixon’s vice president Spiro Agnew constantly referred to our media as a “liberal” one to try and discredit it also.
Famed politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan is best known for his quote, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” He said that 40 years ago — and, it turns out, Moynihan stole that quote from someone else. The Yale Book of Modern Proverbs traces it back to a column in the January 6, 1950, issue of the Deming, New Mexico, Headlight, which attributed it to Bernard Baruch, a New York financier who advised both Woodrow Wilson and FDR. But what we learn from that 66-year-old quote is that some have always tried to destroy verifiable facts with untruths.
Even Mark Twain wrote, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” In the era of Yellow Journalism, newspapers literally made up stories to increase their circulations. Fake news is not a new story. It’s always been with us.
But of course, there’s more futuristic visions from this report. After, “Bigger isn’t always better and ownership isn’t equated with happiness,” the column adds, “wealth is an increasingly outdated measure of success.” Oh, great; there go the property values in Westover Hills. Only in our new Gilded Age of Income Inequality would someone write that wealth is not a measure of success without being totally disconnected from reality. If nothing else, Ms. Connelly could take a drive around Greater Detroit and then a side trip to where auto executives live in Grosse Point.
And yet it gets even better. Ms. Connelly’s report wraps it all up by claiming that “punctuality is a dying art and procrastination can be a strength”. Note to my editors: When in the future my columns are late in arriving, you now know it’s because I’m somehow becoming stronger.
Ford is so proud of this report that it allowed a download of it. What is truly astonishing is that the company honestly believes it has its finger on the pulse of the future, (Or at least your finger on the on-off button for the Bluetooth) when too often it’s not a prediction of the future at all, but something that has already happened. And this article shows a spectacular lack of knowledge of even our recent history, not to mention the past 100 years. Connelly’s prediction that bigger isn’t always better may have been a great reason for discontinuing the massive Ford Excursion; but wealth’s being “an increasingly outdated measure of success” certainly doesn’t align with the massive increase in luxury cars’ sales over the past two decades.
For the past decade, all I’ve heard is how the Internet has changed everything about the car business, from how people research a new car before they buy it to looking up pricing on the vehicle and their trade-in. But very little has changed, particularly human nature. Forty years ago, people shopping for a new car asked about safety, acceleration and gas mileage. Well, the cars were safer in the Seventies than in the Fifties — but not, in anyone’s imagination, compared to today’s. A 1975 Olds Cutlass with a GM 350 CID engine delivered a mere 165 horsepower and 8.9 miles per gallon in town per the EPA figures, but everyone thought the acceleration and mileage were fine.
Again, 40 years ago 7-11 stores sold invoice books for new cars; and credit unions would fax over the page containing a client’s trade-in’s value. Individuals researched their car purchases by buying Car & Driver, Motor Trend or Road and Track. So no, the Internet hasn’t changed anything, other than offering you that same information faster, with less accuracy and for free. But the basic steps of car buying are exactly same as they were decades ago. But people, even in the auto industry, honestly believe it has changed.
Having a bit of fun at the expense of this report was one thing. But it’s also made me wonder what the real future of the automobile industry is for everyone.
Let me think about that. I’ll get back to you.
© 2016 Ed Wallace
Ed Wallace, a member of the American Historical Association, is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, conferred by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA. He reviews new cars every Friday morning at 7:15 on Fox Four’s Good Day and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: email@example.com