Most Over-Hyped Automotive Trends of Past 25 Years

Drew Winter, Contributing Editor

October 9, 2012

3 Min Read
Most Over-Hyped Automotive Trends of Past 25 Years

For the 25th anniversary of the Society of Automotive Analysts, I recently had the honor of moderating a panel of auto industry luminaries that dissected the most important automotive events of the past quarter century.

I was asked to say a few words to set the scene. Rather than attempt to match wits with the likes of celebrated analysts Maryann Keller, John Casesa and General Motors Chief Economist Mustafa Mohatarem, I made it easy on myself by creating a list of the most over-hyped automotive trends of the last 2.5 decades or so.

Making the list was easy. The hard part was whittling it down to a manageable length. Here’s my take on the biggest non-events of the last 25 years. Let me know what other boondoggles I should have included.

Automation and high-tech factories.I spent the first half of the 1980s writing about how U.S. auto makers were going to solve their quality and productivity problems by replacing workers with robots and building factories so automated the lights inside could be turned off. I spent the second half of the decade documenting how it all went terribly wrong.

Technology transfer from aerospace.Fueled by GM’s $5 billion purchase of Hughes Aircraft in 1985, followed by other aerospace acquisitions by the auto industry, this trend was going to jump start advanced technology in vehicles. Aside from the adoption of head-up displays on a few luxury cars, this supposedly big story was a bust.

Outsourcing.It was a major buzzword in 1987, not as a means of offloading employees, but as a way to keep up with rapidly advancing technologies in electronics, seating and braking systems, among others.

Insourcing.In 2003, recalls and quality issues frayed relationships between auto makers and suppliers – especially at Ford. It became the year insourcing was back in style.

Modularity.  Modular manufacturing and assembly was the talk of the town, at least in Detroit for much of the 1990s. It reached its zenith in an ambitious plan at GM to have outside suppliers build big chunks of vehicles in a project known as Yellowstone. Poor communication between GM and the United Auto Workers union led to a blowup. Suddenly “modular” became a 4-letter word.

Plastic cars and trucks.Another grand notion to come out of the 1980s and early 1990s. GM started the plastic-body-panel craze with the Fiero and APV minivans and then Saturn, but lots of other auto makers had big plastic projects in the works. Ford initiated a giant program code-named PN38 to move all its light trucks to plastic, and then killed it. Chrysler, BMW, Renault and others also had grandiose plans that died. There was activity all over the world for a few busy years. Then it just fizzled.

Covisint.The Internet bubble drove many bold ideas at the beginning of the century and Covisint was one of them. A joint venture among the Detroit Three, Renault and Nissan to purchase parts and materials, it was expected to revolutionize automotive purchasing. It did not.

Inaki Lopez.Once hailed as “Super Lopez” at GM for his ability to chop millions from purchasing costs, his lack of ethics, bizarre behavior and criminal indictments easily make him the most over-hyped auto executive of the last 25 years, and perhaps the last 100.

The 42-volt car.During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the auto industry convinced itself that vehicles were becoming so loaded with electrified features and accessories they would require a whole new type of electrical system, switching from 12V to 42V. The idea drove tremendous excitement in the automotive electronics industry. Then one day the auto industry changed its mind. The end.

Hydrogen-powered fuel cells. In 2002, GM, DaimlerChrysler, and others predicted there would be thousands of affordable fuel-cell powered vehicles on the road by 2010. That hasn’t happened, but GM, Daimler, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai continue to develop fuel-cell vehicles and are promising salable models by 2015. Ten years ago, a skeptical Volkswagen executive asked: “How will they generate hydrogen? How will the hydrogen be distributed? How will they solve the question of hydrogen storage?” These questions remain unanswered.

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About the Author(s)

Drew Winter

Contributing Editor, WardsAuto

Drew Winter is a former longtime editor and analyst for Wards. He writes about a wide range of topics including emerging cockpit technology, new materials and supply chain business strategies. He also serves as a judge in both the Wards 10 Best Engines and Propulsion Systems awards and the Wards 10 Best Interiors & UX awards and as a juror for the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year awards.

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