Where the Innovation’s At

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Monday, April 4th, 2011
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When walking through the Seoul Motor Show today, you will easily be able to notice something important. After getting your eyeful of all the girls, after oohing and aahing at the latest sports cars, you can get a good sense of the state of the entire auto industry. It is a mature industry, one which has been maturing for over 100 years. And even though I am an American myself, I cannot deny this painful fact - the innovation is not coming from the US.
The electric cars here are coming from Asia, and from Europe. The focus on green technology is not the basis of American companies' new models. For US-based auto companies, the order of the day is more of the same. From them we see more huge SUVs, more evolutionary models of standard sports cars, and more of what was the recipe for success 20 years ago. But from other companies we see hybrid cars, we see electric cars, we see cars that are smaller and more efficient. Sure, they can get squashed by the lumbering mega-SUV in a head-to-head fight, but thankfully that's not why we buy cars.
When I was much younger I remember reading an article in Popular Mechanics about a 100 miles-per-gallon concept car. It was created using lightweight materials. It had an efficient engine. It had mathematics and proof-of-concept design and experimental thought put into it. It was revolutionary in almost every way, and it was never produced and never talked about again. It's quite depressing that the US auto industry had the knowhow and wherewithal and elbow grease to put together a 100mpg car in the 1990s but lacked the foresight and long-range planning to actually sell it. These new hybrids and electric car offerings I see from small companies such as PowerPlaza look similar to that long-dead super-efficient car I read about as a wee lad, and here I am almost ready for a mid-life crisis. What was the hold-up? Where did all the cool stuff go? Why did I have to spend 20 years riding around in gigantic road-hog trucks and SUVs? And why did I have to see the US auto industry get devastated by a global financial crisis, when we invented the things in the first place?
Unfortunately I do not have an answer for myself, except to walk around this auto show with you crowds and see where all the cool stuff went, and where the new ideas are coming from. And as a citizen of the country that invented the automobile, I feel a little embarrassed that it has come to this - that we are staunch supporters of tradition in car design and its holding us back and injuring our economic prospects while younger companies from other countries take the lead in new technology.
I also have some reserved excitement, however. The hybrid car and electric car industries are not yet mature, but it is fun seeing them grow. I have seen some of the electric cars at previous Motor Shows on the street, and while they look brave and shiny-new, they also look immature and vulnerable. I am looking forward to seeing more evolution in the design of green vehicles in this motor show and others, and eagerly look forward to the day when I can drive a car that looks like it weighs 30 pounds, gets 150 miles to the battery, and can be re-charged by hooking itself up to my mobile phone. That'll definitely be the day!

 

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