Let's assume for the moment that the automotive world will be dominated by GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, VW, Toyota and Renault. How will these companies remake our world?
To get some insights, I turned to Scott McNealy, chief executive of Sun Microsystems, and William Gibson, a popular science fiction novelist. Gibson is credited with coining the term 'cyberspace'; he wrote about virtual reality and the Internet universe before most people knew such concepts existed. In Gibson's novels, corporations run a world in which traditional government has withered away. Gibson's future is not a pleasant place, plagued by overpopulation, anarchy and pollution.
Now, I don't happen to be a pessimist, and I don't accept that part of his vision. But I think he may be right about the relative power of corporations and government. In this fast-forward world in which we live, it is difficult for government to respond quickly to social changes wrought by new technology. Elected officials must build a public consensus, and that takes time.
Most likely, mega-automakers will decide how to use new technology long before the government gets around to regulating it. And what might that new technology do for us? For starters, you should turn to Page 58 and read our Postscript feature, an excerpt of a speech by McNealy. McNealy visualizes a future in which every vehicle is assigned its own Web site the moment it rolls off the assembly line. Automakers could monitor the vehicle's performance and warn the motorist if a malfunction appears likely.
As McNealy points out, the benefits to the motorist are obvious. But the potential threat to the motorist's privacy is equally clear. For example, a system such as OnStar can track the whereabouts of its customers and monitor their requests for services. If OnStar keeps that information confidential, no problem. If OnStar sells that information to other marketers, watch out! McNealy believes that the marketplace will take care of that problem. If customers suspect that OnStar is misusing that information, then OnStar's business would dry up. Now, I would dearly like to believe that's true. But there are too many examples of corporate misuse of customer information in other industries. Do we really believe the mega-automakers will exercise more restraint than their nonautomotive peers? Like Gibson, I am not convinced that governments can move quickly enough to curb corporate excess. It's a brave new world: I hope we're ready for it.
Comments? David Sedgwick's e-mail address is [email protected]