A courtroom in Vermont represents the latest example of what used to be the American automobile industry - and is now a hollowed-out shell of assembly lines waiting to be picked apart by private equity firms - looking the future in the face and saying "I'm not going."
Today marks the beginning of a trial at the U.S. District Court in Burlington that pits the industry against the State of Vermont. Vermont is one of ten states, including California, that has mandated limits on carbon dioxide emissions, but it is the first case to actually go to trial. These ten states have passed legislation that compels a 30 percent phased-in cut in emissions, beginning with 2009 models.
Rather than challenging itself to meet - if not anticipate - consumer demand for low-emission vehicles, the industry continues to battle the inevitable, and by doing so continues to shoot itself in the tire both reputationally and financially. It's déjà vu all over again; the descendants of the paleo-leadership that fought seat belts are waging another futile struggle.
Ironically, the trial is beginning during the week of the New York Auto Show. Are you desperately excited to see what the industry has got to show for itself? I highly doubt it.
Yet once upon a time, the Auto Show was big news. The media swarmed over the new model-year cars and the fantastical promise of the vehicles of the future, and the public swooned. We worshiped our cars and we loved the American car industry in all its power and glamour and sexiness.
Today, the Auto Show is a non-event, a moribund relic that barely elicits a media yawn. The new car introductions are nothing more than clones and tweaks; even the networks know enough not to create spin-offs of shows no one watched in the first place. Who would have thought that a phone could inspire people more than car? Well, there's exponentially more excitement when a black t-shirt magic-maker named Steve walks on stage to introduce a new cell phone than anything being presented at the auto show.
The painful proceedings in Vermont, and the deadly event in New York City are further evidence of the demise of Detroit, a spiral that was been excruciatingly documented.
But what's missing in that attention is what I am convinced is a level of deep and dark consumer anger. Americans are simply furious at Detroit for squandering its place in the culture, for its failure of imagination, for its environmental block-headedness, and for its relentless inability to conceive of and produce cars that stir the soul.
We love our cars, but the industry has allowed its side of the love affair to sink into a passionless rut. GM, Ford and Chrysler (remember when they were called the Big 3?) have not just let down those of us who love cars and sexy innovation, but they have also allowed entire swaths of the Midwest to turn into rusting hulks, and by doing have set back the entire American economy.
So we're suffering from a different kind of road rage, and the unions are seen as complicit in it, too. Which is why there's no sympathy for them. The car companies designed crappy cars no one wanted...the unions built crappy cars no one wanted...and we were forced to transfer our love for cars to countries like Japan and Germany that we had no love for.
The Tiny 3 still don't get this. They don't realize the fury that a lover feels when they've been let down. Detroit has gone from frustrating us to death, to boring us to death, to now trying to litigate us to death. If ever an industry has been complicit in its own mortality, it's this one.