“A king is history's slave.” -- Leo Tolstoy
We’re at that time of year when we reflect upon who’s done what in the auto industry. There are the heroes -- like 2014 Chevrolet Corvette chief engineer (and Automobile Magazine Man of the Year) Tadge Juechter. The martyrs -- like sacked Audi R&D chief Wolfgang Dürheimer. And the pioneers -- like General Motors’ new CEO Mary Barra. These individuals deserve recognition. And yet, they also have me thinking about the difficulties and pitfalls of assigning credit in the auto industry.
The basic problem is that the executives who repeatedly make the news are, by the very nature of their roles, quite removed from the process of making cars. No doubt, they have plenty to do with a vehicle’s success or failure -- allocating money to the right places, hiring the right people, saying the right things to the media. But save for a few notable exceptions, chief designers don’t spend the day drawing (some don’t draw at all), and chief engineers don’t spend all day driving on racetracks or crunching numbers. The doing -- sketching, engineering, validating, and building -- is done by men and women who rarely waltz across the stage at an auto show. Many of them don’t even work for an automaker, since little things like seats, brakes, steering racks, and tires come from suppliers.
Even if an executive takes an interest in the details, there’s no guarantee he or she had much to do with any particular car because development typically takes so long. The executive who accepts the cheers or the jeers at a vehicle’s introduction may not have been around when it was on the drawing board. Remember, for instance, how GM CEO Dan Akerson screwed up the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu? I do: I wrote about it. I characterized the new Malibu as “Dan’s car,” as opposed to the acclaimed 2008 Malibu, which is frequently described as Lutz’s car. The trouble with this widely reported angle, as someone later noted to me, is that Lutz was still running the show when the latest Malibu was being developed. “Dan’s car” is also “Bob’s car.”
Indeed, we in the media are part of the problem. Our impulse -- a good impulse, I’d argue -- is to put a face with a car. It helps us present products in context, as more than a sum of parts and a performance numbers. We try very hard to give credit where credit is due. For instance, Automobile talked to Elon Musk about the vision behind the Tesla Model S, but then we interviewed two engineers to learn about its steering. Likewise, many automakers try to be transparent (or at least translucent) in assigning credit for particular cars. Mazda, for instance, made sure I saw innovations driven by individual line workers in Hiroshima when I wrote about the All-Star-winning CX-5. And yet no journalist can possibly get to know every single person on a development team, never mind the hundreds more who work for suppliers. Far too often, we hear only from a few executives. As a result, the narratives we weave with these people -- though accurate -- are incomplete.
And so, as we look back on 2013, I’d like to tip my hat to those of you I’ve never met who have contributed greatly to the cars I love. My resolution for 2014 is to write about more of you.