Being Realistic

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An analysis of fuel efficiency and automotive safety in USA Today by Jayne O'Donnell and James R. Healey raises big questions about laws and technological progress. Better gas mileage might lead people to drive more, at least partly negating efforts to reduce emissions. Manufacturers required to increase fuel efficiency might also promote smaller cars that some safety officials believe are inherently less safe than larger ones. There were over 1,600 comments on these issues at the usatoday.com site, so I doubt I'd have anything new to add on either point. But there's a more intriguing one that the article also broaches: technology forcing. Can governments make companies innovate when they insist they're doing the best they can? The idea has had mixed results. Direction by Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) helped Japanese chip makers threaten the American semiconductor industry -- but also made them vulnerable to resurgent American manufacturers led by Intel once the personal computing era called for new designs.

The problem of any legal mandate is that it is often impossible to say in advance what researchers are capable of. This is sometimes discovered only under great pressure. In a paper on the history of the American jet engine program, the historian of technology and business Phil Scranton has written:

Without passion, without being driven by Cold War fears and by the challenges of mastery (in engineering and in organizational terms), without buckets of public money, and perhaps without secrecy, it is improbable that reliable jet propulsion would have been achieved at all, much less commercialized and normalized as a relatively speedy, if tedious mode of travel.

After automotive industry resistance to the safety, fuel economy, and environmental standards of the 1960s and 1970s, the dire predictions of executives like Henry Ford II proved unfounded. Other industries fearing disaster from new health and safety laws generally seem to survive and prosper, though not all firms adapt successfully. Governments may help them by mandating higher quality -- and higher priced -- goods. High European gasoline taxes probably encouraged improvements like fuel-saving steel-belted radial tires; now Michelin, which pioneered them, is a major manufacturer in the US, too. Paradoxically, it is conservatives and libertarians who are otherwise the first to point out the unlimited possibilities of human ingenuity -- "the ultimate resource," as my friend the late free-market economist Julian Simon called it in a famous book of the same name. And it's a further paradox that liberals (in the New Deal as opposed to Simon's classical sense) have much more confidence in the ability of private industry to rise to environmental challenges through innovation than business advocates seem to. Perhaps liberals are ignoring realities, as conservatives say, but auto industry critics can't be faulted for a lack of American can-do spirit. See a Union of Concerned Scientists report from 2003.

And they may be right. One intriguing precedent is the scale-up of penicillin. According to the the American Chemical Society page on this World War Two project:

 Pfizer's John L. Smith captured the complexity and uncertainty facing these companies during the scale-up process: "The mold is as temperamental as an opera singer, the yields are low, the isolation is difficult, the extraction is murder, the purification invites disaster, and the assay is unsatisfactory."

The real question may not be whether a new generation of cars can be greener and safer -- and marketable -- without increasing the cost per mile of driving. I suspect it's how much of the development costs auto manufacturers and their suppliers will be able to bear in the global economic climate of 2009 as opposed to 2003, much less those of the Second World War and the Cold War. We may have a chance to test the slogan of Europe's student rebels 30 years ago: "Be realistic. Demand the impossible."

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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