Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Eyes on the Road

Staking out the future right from the start

By Marc Stengel

JANUARY 10, 2000:  It is fitting that the last century--the primordial one for automobiles--should have ended with such a flush of success in vehicle sales, styling, technology, and convenience. From an elite curiosity 100 years ago, the automobile has evolved into today's most significant mass commodity, arguably the most expensive widely owned artifact in all of human history. For this reason, it is easy to predict that the automobile's very success will become its greatest challenge for the next 100 years, as competing constituencies vie to shape personal, mechanical transportation into their own images of the future.


I predict that the most significant near-term revolution in automobiles will concern the way they are sold. For a century, automotive retailing has defined a virtual class of society known as the family auto dealer. Like feudal baronets and viscounts, a relative handful of small and large auto dealer families have established dynastic monopolies with strict territorial pretensions. But as they've consolidated both power and prestige, auto dealers as a group have tended to alienate the two other constituent classes of Autodom: the manufacturers and the customers. Indeed, it is our most hackneyed clich to compare buying a new or used car with having teeth pulled.

Accordingly, there are seismic forces afoot that may transform the automotive landscape. On the one hand, manufacturers are experimenting boldly with plans to buy out family dealerships in strategic markets, the better to consolidate marketing power. On the other hand, individual consumers are educating themselves at a ravenous pace about the formerly shrouded secrets of Byzantine auto transactions. No longer dependent upon the cabalistic practices of showroom salespeople, customers are starting to exploit their newly acquired information franchise by shopping nationally over the Internet for the deals they want--instead of the deals they're so often forced to accept.

For the next quarter-century, I predict that auto retailing will slough off its medieval, dynastic raiment and join the ranks of every other mass-produced consumer commodity. Consumers will learn to order direct from manufacturers or large regional distributors (or at least to threaten to); manufacturers will learn to build to order (in days and hours, not weeks or months); and entrepreneurial dealers will learn to take orders and to stop interposing themselves between supply and availability--in other words, to service customers the way other successful retail merchants learned to do long ago.


By the end of the next decade, it will no longer be possible to shop for a vehicle without a booklet-sized lexicon of automotive acronyms. Already, we have graduated far beyond the occasional use of SUV, a 1980s coinage for those sport/utility vehicles that graft attributes of trucks onto cars or minivans. The preeminence of trucks and the brawny can-do culture they represent means we are no longer loath to associate with the connotations of cargo vehicles. APVs (all-purpose vehicles), MPVs (multi-purpose vehicles), and SUTs (sport/utility trucks) have already appeared with their hair-splitting nuances. But you would also be wise to brace yourself as well for ULEVs (ultra-low emission vehicles), EVs (electric vehicles), HPVs (hybrid-power vehicles), and AFVs (alternative fuel vehicles). Vehicle designs--and therefore their designations--are being vectored by the twin forces of consumers' insistent personal requirements and intrusive public dictates concerning fuel efficiency, emissions, and safety.

It is my prediction that by the end of the next decade, the simple division between car and truck will be virtually impossible to detect for the majority of commuter vehicles. Instead, the trend will be to segregate along the lines of size: big, powerful vehicles with extra capacities for people and things versus small, efficient, clean vehicles for more personal, smaller-capacity use. The grail-like achievement of a multipurpose, one-size-fits-all design will continue to elude us, even while disparities of absolute size diverge to such an extent that our roadways will require adaptation. By the close of the next horseless century, behemoth vehicles (and perhaps sports/performance craft as well) will be segregated to their own lanes, funded by volume and emissions tariffs, the better to beat up on bullies their own size. Human-scale commuter pods with clean, quiet motors will inherit more convenient urban routes and parking spaces in a bid to integrate motorized craft with people-powered cycles, buggies, and, yes, even the pedestrian.

Next paradigm

Today, your vehicle transports you through space. Tomorrow (and I mean literally the day after today), your car will be transporting you through information. The thin edge of the wedge is already visible: Proliferating GPS navigation systems are actually experimental test-beds for integrating wireless telephony, satellite communication, and database management (to date, in the form of cartographic data). What's on the way is a quantum step beyond.

The old paradigm will no doubt prevail for a few decades more, even as we marvel at the accomplishments of satellite radio, audiotext e-mail communication, and voice-activated telephony and Internet surfing. I predict that by mid-century, however, software content will give way to control as "smart" vehicles coordinate amongst themselves to convey us otherwise preoccupied commuters to our individual destinations by the safest, shortest, fastest route.

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