Profits Before Progress
By CHRIS FOX, Associate Editor, Product Design & Development (PD&D)
Have you ever seen the movie Who Killed the Electric Car? Regardless of your political affiliation or your opinion on that specific topic, the documentary raises some very important questions about how progress is managed in our society. At the center is an electric car, the GM EV1, which was produced and leased from 1996 to 1999. This vehicle ran without emissions. Let me repeat that, NO emissions, and very little maintenance to boot.
After a short run, GM decided to cease production as they “couldn’t justify a demand” for such a vehicle. GM claimed that a vehicle that had to be charged and offered limited distance capabilities (about 100 miles per charge) wasn’t sufficient for the average American. It was the justification for the EV1’s demise. Beyond stopping production, which is reasonable from a business standpoint (if their research was accurate), GM and other electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers rounded up their EVs and destroyed them, stomping out almost any evidence that the vehicles even existed.
Fast forward about 12 years. Enter the Nissan Leaf. This “new-age” EV has to be plugged in daily and has a range of around 100 miles. Suddenly, EV technology is profound and worthwhile again. With almost identical specifications to the EV1, why would somebody produce the same car more than a decade later? The green movement that is sweeping the United States suddenly makes low or no emissions extremely profitable, and it makes for great PR.
Even GM has jumped back onboard with the Volt, and Toyota is pushing their hybrid family to include a plug-in Prius. Beyond the political ridiculousness and shady dealings of the auto industry, oil companies and our government, this story has a lot more to say about how we are progressing as a country and a world culture.
It doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to see what seems to control progress … money. This necessary element to our society and any technical evolution has essentially trumped any inspiration, shooting ourselves in the metaphorical foot. The electric car is the perfect example -- once unprofitable and unpopular when it premiered -- only to reemerge with the same specs and a new logo 12 years later. Is this progress?
Beyond the drab propaganda and shady business that make me see red, this is a terrible way to advance. Amazing technology that could have had 12 years of refinement is starting from the beginning, again, because it wasn’t making enough money (supposedly). One step forward, five steps back.
This is where the gray comes in. I can greatly appreciate engineers, inventors and even business tycoons wanting to profit from their talents and innovations. Completely understandable. Earning your keep is important, but so is the evolution and progress of our culture. Without great thinkers sharing their ideas, we would be reduced to stone-age living. I don’t want to give up my smart phone because I don’t know how to make my own, but when companies hold onto ideas that could change the world until they can make the most money is just criminal.
None of us would know who Plato was if he didn’t share his ideas in an open forum. Einstein wouldn’t be deified by physicists and engineers if he hadn’t told somebody to check out his sweet equation. My point is this: If your idea is truly profound, you will profit from it. The losses, monetary and cultural, from hoarding ideas is exponentially greater than any dollar amount. Lack of idea-sharing for capital gains turns into sluggish progression and a loss of inspiration, whereas sharing knowledge and transparency drives the ability to progress at exponential rates.
Our society has changed immensely in the last few decades. In fact, we have achieved so much in just the last five years. Theoretically, however, we could be generations ahead of where we are now, if we could just step out of our own way and share. It’s a concept that we all learned as children, and it is truly a recipe for progress. Self-righteousness and a sense of entitlement are damning to everything in the forward-thinking world. Communication, open forum, and the sharing of ideas and innovations will keep our culture and our nation consistently at the crest of the progressive wave.
What’s your take? Let me know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.