July 7, 2008

Giving the people what they want

Listening to this week's episode of This Week in Tech, reference was made to the film "Who Killed the Electric Car?"Now, I haven't seen the film in question. I can't speak to whatever argument it puts forth. I do, however, have a fairly good idea of the answer to the question posed in the title.

Folks, the electric car was killed by the public. I know that isn't the answer people want to hear. It's much more satisfying to blame General Motors and Toyota for killing off their electric cars (although Toyota receives kudos for its hybrid technology). The fact remains, however, that if enough people had wanted them, they'd still be producing them, because that's how free enterprise works. If there is demand, someone will fill that demand. If there is insufficient demand to profitably produce something, it's going to be killed off. Like it or not, that's how the world works.

Here's an example from another industry: when I worked for McDonald's (which I did for almost fifteen years, as a manager), there was a general outcry that McDonald's needed to produce healthier food. In response, the company replaced its soft-serve ice cream with frozen yogurt, introduced salads, developed a low-fat hamburger (the McLean Deluxe), and lowered the fat content of its milkshakes. And then... Sales tanked. People complained that the yogurt had an aftertaste (guess what, people, it's yogurt), that the shakes weren't rich enough, that the McLean was dry. The most popular dressings for the salads were bleu cheese and ranch.

You see, people often say they want one thing, and then go out and spend their money on something else. While Mickey D's was introducing healthier options, people kept right on buying Big Macs and Double Quarter Pounders with Cheese. And when GM introduced the EV1, people kept right on buying Tahoes, and Silverados, and Yukons, and Hummers, and did so in ever-increasing numbers, because twenty years after the Arab oil embargo, people forgot that gasoline could get expensive and scarce. Sure, there were some people who wanted an electric car, but not enough to make it a profitable enterprise--and so GM, and the rest of the industry, gave people what they wanted, until even Cadillac, Lincoln, and Lexus started building huge, glitzy trucks.

So the next time you're tempted to blame the industry for its stupidity, take a look in your own driveway. If you're driving a full-size truck or SUV, and you're not a farmer--or if you don't live in an extreme climate--blame yourself instead. We only got what we asked for.