3 2008

Commodity cars a challenge worth pursuing

Mr. Obama and members of Congress,

Rather than supplying any current auto manufacturers with a bailout, which I think will only delay the inevitable, please consider investing (and encouraging private investment) in efforts to standardize the components of a new generation of automobiles. With free and open standards, such as those used to build the web and the coming generation of mobile phones, we can rebuild the auto industry by transforming it from a small number of manufacturers devoted to closed designs and increased waste into a greater number of specialty industries that create components of great variety, of guaranteed compatibility, and which will create longer-lasting vehicles.

Personal computers were once large, expensive, complex and proprietary, as our cars remain today. With a meager cost of $1m, Compaq reverse engineered the successful IBM PC’s only remaining proprietary component, allowing them to create the first 100% “PC compatible” computer based on other parts that were already standardized. This revolutionized the PC industry and brought us greater choice, unlimited customization and, of course, continuously falling prices.

Low price must be a trait of the next auto if we’re to seriously take on the enormous transition to alternative fuels in the near future.

What will these cars look like? Today’s average cars are designed by a hand-picked few with little interest in creating vehicles that can be maintained easily for many years, so it probably should look quite different; if not smaller, much lighter. We can’t afford much longer to choose increasingly heavy family vehicles out of fear of safety, as this kills fuel economy. There should probably be a purposefully short list of frame styles to serve different families, but I think a sign of success would be much more variety. The dealerships of the future could combine compatible parts more easily to serve consumers based on different goals: highest performance, highest efficiency, lowest environmental impact, most attractive design, best acoustical environment, most comfort, etc. Today’s industry already provides this, but due to high prices, most buyers must compromise on most issues.

How long should the standards last? The goal is to foster a trust of interoperability for a long time. Maybe they should never be deprecated, but infrequently updated.

Should they be enforced? I see this as a separate, voluntary market. For legal use of the seal of compatibility your products must conform to the standard, but you’re free to market competing technologies. I think pushing a “government car” without freedom to innovate would be a terrible idea (and certainly unconstitutional).

Who should create the standards? There are plenty of people to start asking.

Should we share these standards with other nations? In the interest of encouraging domestic production, one idea would be to license foreign use of the seal and/or offer tax incentives for seal-compatible production jobs in the U.S.

No one certainly has all the answers; there are certainly others who share some of these ideas, but I think the goal of more thoroughly commoditizing auto parts would have a great effect on our lives, though maybe not the current auto makers if they refuse to adapt to the market.

(also see where this idea came from)

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