Last week, when the government announced the new fuel efficiency standards for 2025, I heard a number of Detroit auto buffs snort that they were unrealistic, utopian, and impossible.
“There’s no way they can get a corporate fuel economy average of fifty-four miles a gallon, no way,” one man told me.
Well, my technical knowledge of cars is limited to knowing where to find the owner’s manual when one of those warning lights comes on. But I do know something about the history of technology, and the general pattern is this:
If the experts say something is going to happen in five years, that usually means it is happening somewhere, right now, and will be widespread within a year and totally triumphant in eighteen months.
If they say that something is technically impossible, that means that the first practical application may not appear for a year or so. There are exceptions, of course. But just consider this:
Twenty years ago, nobody I knew had a cell phone. The President of the United States had a phone in his car, but I knew of a case where the governor had to make an important phone call and his limousine stopped so he could use a pay phone in a gas station.
Twenty years ago, the World Wide Web had just been born, but I knew no one who had internet access in their home. I was then in charge of national and foreign news for a large newspaper. If something happened when I was on vacation, I could write something out on a clumsy, twenty-pound portable device and send it to the newspaper by sticking the handset of a landline into the machine.
This worked some of the time. When it didn’t, I sent a Telex, if I could find a hotel that had one, or dictated over the phone.
As late as the mid-1990s, the New York Times had a dictation room where operators would transcribe stories I called in over the phone. Twenty years ago, the biggest foreign policy story in the world was the efforts at modernizing and reform underway in the Soviet Union. Nobody suspected that vast nation would disappear forever by New Year’s Day. China was starting to lift itself up, but was probably of less economic importance to us than was Spain.
Nobody foresaw that it would, within fourteen years, be rivaling the United States for economic supremacy, or that General Motors would, in the year two thousand ten, sell more Buicks in China than the United States. Twenty years ago, nobody I knew had a laptop. Blackberries were something you ate during Michigan summers. But now we have a hard time living without them.
Detroit’s automakers have been on the wrong side of history too often. In the past, they had the congressional clout to delay higher standards, which may eventually have contributed to their near demise. They don’t have that kind of power any more.
Nor do they have much margin for error. What they do have is a strong need to resume the role they had a century ago, as leading technological innovators. If they do that, and get it right, it could be, looking back two decades from now, Michigan’s nicest historical surprise of all.