if he could do it, why couldn't GM?

All this talk of a Detroit bailout has had me angry. Not angry at the idea taxpayers would have to keep Detroit afloat (this is, after all, an opportunity to force Detroit to be more ambitious with CAFE standards and other such things) but it reflects so much on how poorly General Motors, Ford and Chrysler have operated over the years.

They’ve craved the status-quo and have shunned, if not feared, the idea of innovation in the production and design of their vehicles. Oh, the fabled “Big Three” have evolved over time but they haven’t broken any new ground. They haven’t taken an ambitious chance. What they have done is simply offer more of the same in different wrappers. Big cars turned into station wagons, station wagons turned into vans and mini vans, vans turned into Sport Utility Vehicles.

When it looked like automakers would be forced to adhere to tough air regulation rules in California? They fought it with lawyers. Oh, General Motors went ahead and actually made an electric car in case they lost their case but after they won? Not only did they shelve the things, they had all existing models destroyed. Perish the thought they would try something different when they didn’t have to.

But big cars don’t need to be fuel inefficient. Ask Jonathan Goodwin.

Over the last few weeks, that article on the “Motorhead Messiah” kept coming back to my mind. I originally saw it in 2007 before gas prices topped 4 dollars a gallon in some places. Goodwin has taken Hummer’s and made them flex-fuel (biodiesel, diesel, etc), more fuel efficient and with more power than they originally had. All with standard parts from General Motors. And he’s been doing that for years. He’s been working with Neil Young to convert Young’s 1959 Lincoln Continental into an electric-natural gas hybrid.

Oh, General Motors finally caught on… But they did it real late at that.

In reality, Goodwin’s work has begun to influence some of Detroit’s top auto designers, but through curious and circuitous routes. In 2005, Tom Holm, the founder of EcoTrek, a nonprofit that promotes the use of alternative fuels, heard about Goodwin through the Hummer-junkie grapevine and hired him. When Holm showed GM the vehicles Goodwin converted, the company was duly impressed. Internally, Hummer executives had long been looking for a way to blunt criticism of the H2’s gas-guzzling tendencies and saw Goodwin’s vehicles as an object lesson in what was possible. So GM decided to flip the switch: It announced the same year that, beginning in 2008, it would convert its gasoline Hummers to run on ethanol; by 2010, it said, Hummers would be biodiesel-compatible.

I went into absolute hysterics when I read that paragraph. Hysterics because GM was not only introduced to this years ago, but also because they were going to wait years to implement things… That 2008 target? Gone, because the Hummer brand is for sale and the production all but ceased.

You look at Apple Computers and the ambition they have shown the last decade with the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone — three items that have revolutionized computing and consumer electronics… And then you look at the Big Three US automakers and note that there is no innovation and ambition in their development and design of vehicles.

There is the status-quo, the tried-and-true… and that’s why all three are suffering billion dollar loses fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter.

GM, Chrysler and Ford need ambition and innovation again. They need someone like Goodwin (outside the box, outside the bubble) in charge of engineering, and someone of the same quality in charge of the companies themselves, to get back into the swing of things.

You can’t bank on things staying the same, and for the Big Three? Their downfall was expecting just the opposite – for things to stay the same, perpetually.

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