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In Defense of the Old Industrialists

12:29 PM, Feb 3, 2010 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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In this month's Wired, Chris Anderson launches another of his counter-intuitive, techno-supremacy arguments: That we are on the verge of another American industrial revolution, only this time it will be carried out in micro-scale by DIY entrepreneurs. I like Anderson a ton--he's one of those guys who's worth reading even when he's wrong. But he begins this new piece with an über-example of the new DIY industrialists that's grating in its self-satisfaction. Anderson discovers a car company in Massachusetts called Local Motors which designs and sells really nifty cars. Their flagship is a vehicle called the Rally Fighter, which looks like the car Darth Vader would drive on Pandora. It's designed by a volunteer, open-source community and it is, without a doubt, awesome. It's also $50,000 and Local Motors has sold 63 of them. Or, more to the point, Local Motors has pre-sold the option to buy 63 of them. This is Anderson's New Industrialism.

In the course of puffing up Local Motors, Anderson takes a bunch of cheap shots at Detroit, such as:

Several more designs are in the pipeline, and the company says it can take a new vehicle from sketch to market in 18 months, about the time it takes Detroit to change the specs on some door trim.

Which puts me in mind of a quote from GM's Bob Lutz. Discussing the Tesla electric sports car and its ambitions to "change the face of the automotive industry," Lutz dryly noted:

The hubris of Tesla is "We're not going to fall into the trap of being like Detroit--we're going to be the Silicon Valley guys, nimble and innovative." Everyone who tries to reinvent this business believes that auto companies are populated by dummies who don't understand Moore's Law. But, unlike a silicon chip, the modern automobile has to be a certain size, and carry a certain number of people, at a certain speed. Over thirty-five hundred parts from around the world have to come together at the right place and the right time to produce sitxy to seventy of these things an hour. These things are called cars. And to make them you need a large engineering staff, a workforce that demands retirement benefits, a tax staff, a fleet of accountants, and an unbelievable amount of reliability testing that Tesla can't afford to do right now--and we can't afford not to do. Inevitably, Tesla will discover that the only way to succeed on the scale we have is to be exactly like us.

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