Car history as a future economic engine

Contributing writerMay 27, 2012 

Americans didn’t invent the automobile. The U.S. is no longer the world’s largest market for auto sales. In recent years domestic manufacturers have been eclipsed by various European and Asian producers when it comes to reputation for high performance, engineering, design, reliability and affordability.

But no nation on Earth has embraced the automobile as robustly as the U.S. as part of its history, economy, landscape and lifestyle. The LeMay museum bills itself as America’s Car Museum. Heck, the entire country is one big car museum, when it comes to our embrace of all things automotive in virtually every aspect of our lives. Car culture is American culture.

That’s not a bad thing. Cars, like trains, planes and boats, are engineering marvels. They contribute economically not only through their own production and employment, but by making the rest of the economy more mobile and efficient. They fit in well with the American temperament to get up and go, and to get things done. And as glimpses of the museum’s collection would indicate, they’re just plain cool to admire.

The intertwining of American life with the automobile isn’t going to change. For all the kvetching about the cost of gas and smog and safety and congestion and suburbs, Americans like cars, for their practicality and the freedom personal transportation provides. Driving isn’t a chore (unless, perhaps, you’re trying to negotiate I-5 in the weekday rush hours). Let Google develop all the driverless cars it wants. Americans aren’t going to willingly relinquish control of the steering wheel for something akin to an amusement park kiddie ride.

Thus Tacoma’s welcome to the latest addition to its version of Museum Row provides a useful point to evaluate what’s next in the evolution of the car – and whether the Northwest has a role to play.

It’s under the hood that the biggest changes are likely to occur. People like cars, but they’re indifferent to what powers them. Gasoline has been the default choice for decades because the technology for unlocking energy from a raw material (oil) was relatively straightforward and known and supplies of that material were abundant. If it were found tomorrow that cars could run on something as abundant and affordable as what it replaced, most would shrug, shift into drive and head out on the road.

The possibility of declining supplies of gasoline at increasingly higher prices has prompted research and development in other fuels and energy sources – natural gas, for example.

The Pacific Northwest missed out on participating in much of the auto industry’s growth (although Ford actually built two assembly plants in Seattle), but it, like everyone else, is seeking a role in the next generation of vehicle propulsion. Western Washington University’s Vehicle Research Institute has long been involved in developing alt-fuel cars. The University of Washington is stepping up its involvement in competitions to encourage development of such vehicles.

In North-Central Washington, the Advanced Vehicle Innovations consortium (plugincenter.net) wants to “generate business opportunities associated with alternative vehicle component design and manufacturing, battery technology, battery management systems, conversion kit manufacturing, biofuel research and development, biofuel processing, etc.”

Composite and advanced materials, which this region has considerable experience in through aerospace and the marine business, offer another potential entry point into the new automotive industry.

Underlying this activity is one fundamental truth about Americans and cars: Whatever shape they take (maybe tail fins are coming back!), whatever fuel they run on, we want them, and we’re going to keep driving them. Old cars may be on display in a new museum, but as long as America as we know it endures, cars will always be much more than museum pieces.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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