It's too soon to see how the Paris climate agreement will affect the auto industry. But any time 195 countries agree to alter energy usage to prevent runaway climate change, it's clear the automobile's future is altered.
Experience best prepares people to handle challenges. And our experiences are informed by personal moments of sudden insight.
It's that aha moment when the abstract becomes real, when "This doesn't affect me" suddenly does. When a vaguely accepted, obscure factoid crystallizes to "I get it."
I've had moments that changed my mind.
I am a son of Detroit, a third-gen Motor City kid steeped in honking V-8s and drag strip heroes. Sure, leaded gasoline always seemed unhealthy. Air inversions sounded awful but didn't affect flat-landers like me. When California passed stringent air-quality rules in the mid-1970s, I briefly wondered if it was overkill.
Until my first trip to Los Angeles. Flying into LAX over Riverside and Ontario, I glanced down at the pattern of houses and streets, then noticed that closer to the mountains, the smog thickened and houses disappeared under brown air.
I thought of children living there. At that moment, I got California emissions laws.
Daily exposure can have a similar effect. In the 1990s, our family lived 54 miles from the Automotive News office in L.A. Most mornings, I'd crest the Simi Valley pass and see that orangy-brown air inversion hovering below. Descending into that witch's brew, you involuntarily gasp, wishing you could hold your breath until dinner.
Dirty air isn't all last century. I knew air quality in India was bad before going there in 2008, but in Delhi, I was startled by gray smog -- inside the airport terminal. Outside, among swarming two-cycle motorcycles, the air was even worse.
I'm not fond of excessive regulation. But the auto industry has survived decades of tight rules. In fact, the auto industry's growth to 85 million light vehicles a year is possible only because of those rules.
Don't believe me? Without huge gains in fuel economy, emissions and safety, there wouldn't be enough resources, fuel or demand to support this much volume.
Besides, does anybody really want the good old days? You know, leaded gas and carburetors. And no seat belts, airbags or laminated safety glass.
Of course not.
Exactly how much regulation is excessive? My views have changed.
Seeing California smog firsthand didn't trigger a conscious call to action. But since then, this Detroit boy hasn't bought a vehicle with an engine larger than 2.6 liters. In 1966, my '53 Buick Super V-8 got 8 stinking miles per leaded gallon. My current ride averages 36 mpg. I'm delighted I can't smell its exhaust.
Attitudes about auto regulations shift, even within the business. A proposed rule? Onerous, impossible. About to take effect? Possible, barely. A year later? Not nearly as awful as that new proposal.
There will always be new auto regulations as conditions and public expectations change. Our attitudes shape whether new rules are a constant irritant to resist or a challenging opportunity to gain an edge.
Maybe we need more aha moments to keep ourselves flexible.