In the early nineteen-sixties, a television commercial appeared on American screens that heralded a major change in the relationship between the automobile and the U.S consumers.
Against a white background without racy music, windswept hunks or buxom, wet look mannequins, a small car crossed the screen.
"This car goes forward, it goes backward, it stops, starts, goes fast, goes slow..."
Xenophobic U.S Congressmen desperately tried to legislate it out of existence, U.S car makers promoted bigger and heavier cars, and Americans rushed out and bought what was to become a Disney star, as well as the biggest selling single model in America since the Tin Lizzy.
The car was the Volkswagen Beetle, marketed in America for the first time.
U.S auto-makers had failed to see car buyers were ready for innovation, new ideas, and change. Novel social ideas were altering attitudes, and big was no longer, best.
The U.S. car industry eventually responded by producing mid-range compacts, and sub-compact versions of the traditional American saloon, and watched their market share continue to decline.
They had failed to understand that the introduction of the Volkswagen was not just an embracing of the small car, but of an idea; accessible, simple, economic personal transport.
Since then, other imported innovations· have reduced the U.S domestic market by one-half, a devastating decline in an industry that even today, is the engine room of the U.S. economy.
In the past fifteen years, the ability of the Japanese car industry to bring new technology, greater quality in production techniques, and flexible marketing, has depressed the U.S. auto industry dramatically. The British car industry is dominated by Japanese products and the German, French and Italian car industries are finding the competition anything but easy.
The primary reason for the success of the Japanese, is a combination of domestic legislation, marketing aptitude, and skill at transforming technologies that are current and attractive, to the showroom floor.
In this last episode, PERFECT WHEELS will explore market demands, legislation, and how these two forces interact with the automobile industry to influence the adoption or resistance to technological change. PERFECT WHEELS will search for ways to create a greater synergism between Consumer, Producer, and Legislator, examining how each produces differing, sometimes conflicting messages, causing technological inertia.
In California, legislators have set standards for emissions and safety that have become touchstones around the world. The California Air Resources Board, has set and regulated emission standards in such a way as to require the Automobile and Fuel industries to constantly adopt new technologies in the drive to improve the air Californians breath. California's lead in this kind of legislation is mirrored in Federal Legislation and the operations of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency.
In Europe, Germany and Holland have been key in passing national legislation that has been adopted by the European Community in regulations to improve the quality of the air.
But are these agencies and regulators the best servers of the consumer's interest? Does regulation demand technology that cannot be achieved, or conversely does it look for no-pain soft options that can satisfy economic and political fears? Are they often blunt instruments that ignore regional variations and needs.
In both the U.S.A., and the European Community, studies, research and directives by Government and Industry have produced a plethora of ideas, technology and legislation that would startle the consumer. Intelligent cars, hydrogen powered fuel cells, new production techniques, clean fuels, all have had their origins in the search by government and industry for new methods of solving the crisis of personal transport; how to keep the air clean, how to allow unhindered travel, how to create efficiency where there's chaos, how to optimise the economics of production.
Without the implementation of new technologies, new approaches and ideas are wasted. Without the understanding of the consumers aspirations, the ability to bring ideas to the consumer, and deliver the product, only those who have benefit from the inertia, will be served.
PERFECT WHEELS opens possibilities to the consumer, creating an informed environment for producers and legislators to act. When asked why he buys a particular gasoline, the Californian consumer, has a clear idea of its merits and faults. There is a knowledge of a range of fuels, provided by such organisations as The California Air Resources Board, the Environment Protection Agency, and The South Coast Air Quality Management Board. These regulators provide information about mandated pollutants, recommend fuels, motive systems, and act as lobbyists for new technology. They have raised the level of public awareness of personal transport technology to unprecedented levels.
However, they are subject to bands of political wisdom and economic restraint that in some instances work against the very object of their purpose. In Europe, there are no such organisations other than the purely environmental lobby groups such as Green Peace and Friends· of the Earth. They have played an increasing role in lobbying for increased legislation to remedy environmental problems. Much of this is negative marketing and narrows arguments to restrictions. The future effectiveness of personal transport must be served by generating holistic views of production, operation, and regulation.
The greatest problem facing marketing and legislation is the building of consumer knowledge. There's an acknowledged revolution in personal transport on the horizon, and yet the consumer knows little of its implications or possibilities. Legislators and industry have been slow to realistically enter a dialogue with, or inform the consumer. No one has yet challenged the imagination of the consumer with these new technologies, in the way Henry Ford did with the Model T.
Like Henry's Model T, the industrial success stories of the past twenty years have been the new markets created in micro electronics, Two new markets have been created where none existed before, the video-recording and personal computer markets. Consumers have moved from relative ignorance of these technologies, to thirsting for new products. Companies like Apple, Toshiba, and Sony have created a market for their products in much the same way Ford created a market for the mass produced automobile. The personal transport market cannot be more difficult to change, than creating a new market by inspiring consumers to adopt conceptually new technology.
Much of the change however needs inspiration from legislators. In California, tax incentives are given to fuels that reduce emissions, in Europe, incentives such as these are not unusual. To encourage the adoption of new automotive technology, direct signalled tax relief should be available to consumers who adopt new technologies. The loss of tax revenue will be greatly off-set by the savings in servicing old technology, increased industrial activity, and reduced health-costs from the improvement in the environment. If tax concessions can be made to stimulate one kind of technology, why not target others such as intelligent cars, energy efficient materials, and low emission propulsion systems.
In some countries these measures have already been used to promote such technologies as electric, and small urban cars, but there is room for greater incentive. Legislators can then see the advance of technologies that they have financed and nurtured reach the market through demand, the only way of confounding inertia.
In this last programme in the PERFECT WHEELS series, legislators, auto-makers and consumers are invited to challenge ideas of personal transport. Armed with a better understanding of the technology available, possible, or on the near horizon, PERFECT WHEELS will provide a platform for a clear expression of plans by both legislators and marketing experts.
Both should be aware that America fell in love with the Volkswagen Beetle, and created a symbol of consumer volatility but it should have come as no surprise to anyone.
Five years before the introduction of the VW ad, number one on the hit parade was "Beep Beep" a extolling the superiority of the Nash Rambler!
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