Finishing off his column for Wednesday's edition of The New York Times, Tom Friedman offers a novel suggestion:
Somebody ought to call Steve Jobs, who doesn't need to be bribed to do innovation, and ask him if he'd like to do national service and run a car company for a year. I'd bet it wouldn't take him much longer than that to come up with the GM iCar.
Friedman obviously doesn't expect General Motors to act on the idea (although Jobs did simultaneously manage both Apple and Pixar for nearly a decade). His larger point, I think, was to contrast the mindsets that prevail in Silicon Valley and Detroit. And as the political powers try to grapple with the fate of GM and the U.S. auto industry, they must be wishing there was a way to perform a gene graft.
In his piece, Friedman approvingly cites a column in The Wall Street Journal by Paul Ingrassia, who used to run that paper's Detroit bureau. It deserves quotation in length:
"In return for any direct government aid," he wrote, "the board and the management (of GM) should go. Shareholders should lose their paltry remaining equity. And a government-appointed receiver--someone hard-nosed and nonpolitical--should have broad power to revamp GM with a viable business plan and return it to a private operation as soon as possible. That will mean tearing up existing contracts with unions, dealers and suppliers, closing some operations and selling others and downsizing the company...Giving GM a blank check--which the company and the United Auto Workers union badly want, and which Washington will be tempted to grant--would be an enormous mistake."
So on and so forth. But as important as all this is, these are process questions to get GM through the near term. However, the salvation--not just for GM but the entire American auto industry--depends upon the sort of innovation that has helped the technology business thrive through several economic cycles.
Without putting Jobs on a special pedestal, he embodies a textbook example of how creativity can rescue a near-moribund operation. After Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he did not hesitate to pull the plug on dead-end projects like the Newton, or ruffle feathers by cutting off the Mac clone makers. At the same time, he infused Apple with a design aesthetic that manifested itself in the development of products such as the iMac, the Mac OSX, the iPod, and the iPhone. None of this was preordained; it was the result of innovative thinking and fast execution.
Now contrast Apple's experience with that of GM. That company let itself get addicted to churning out hulking gas guzzlers because that's where the easy money came from. Energy was relatively cheap and management's thinking was that "green" was the purview of left-wing pansies who ran San Francisco. (GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, who is on record dismissing the potential of hybrid autos, also was quoted saying that global warming was "a total crock of [expletive deleted].")
I don't want to get into the debate over global warming today, but Lutz and the rest of GM's management was unprepared when energy prices spiked and consumer demand shifted abruptly. Is it any surprise, then, to learn that more forward-looking approaches to the auto industry's future have come courtesy of some old tech names like Shai Agassi and Elon Musk.
A former SAP exec, Agassi is attempting to build out an electric car network. Musk, a serial entrepreneur best known as a co-founder of PayPal, now oversees a start-up developing a line of luxury electric cars. (Unfortunately for Tesla, the market meltdown forced it to fire about one-fourth of its full-time workers and delay production of one of its models.) It's hard to know whether Agassi or Musk will be able to make it. If they fail, though, it won't be due to lack of imagination.
Imagination. That's what built the auto industry in the first place. So why can't history repeat itself. Maybe a Jobs, a John Chambers, or a Sergey Brin can help offer an answer. Too bad they won't get the opportunity.