Beckmann: Winds of change are blowing in auto industry

Frank Beckmann
Special to The Detroit News

‘For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

One quick walk through Cobo Center for the North American International Auto Show and Longfellow’s words can wash over you.

The American poet and educator was referencing change, and change is all around us in an auto industry that is such a great part of our lives in southeast Michigan, personally and economically.

From transportation that is powered by alternatives to the reliable standby of the internal combustion engine, to self-driving vehicles, to a car built on a futuristic 3-D printer, change is all around us.

It’s becoming clear that future success stories will center on those companies that embrace change and adjust to it, who let it rain as Longfellow put it.

I’ll always remember listening some decades ago to the late, great WJR radio host J.P. McCarthy when he did an interview with an expert in what — at the time — was an industry that seemed pie-in-the-sky: personal computing.

This expert talked about the coming “information superhighway,” where Americans would be using high-tech machines in their homes and offices to connect with each other for business and pleasure.

I think my reaction was like many at the time — “Yeah, sure. Why would I need that when I have a telephone, fax machine and the mail service for communication?”

Needless to say, I didn’t recognize at the time that the interview represented a cloud that was soon to produce a downpour of change.

It wasn’t that long afterward that our station introduced desktop computers to the newsroom, where stories from the wire services were being amassed and where we would be creating our on-air copy for use.

Eventually, those clattering newswire machines were going to be eliminated, we were told, and the computers (as well as newspapers) would be our lone source to gather information.

Most of us accepted the change and rode the learning curve into the new information age, though a couple of co-workers insisted on using their old, trusty typewriters until they were forced to jump on that information highway, kicking and screaming (Note to younger readers: We used to carry around the latest gadgets — electric typewriters — to avail ourselves of the best opportunity to take our work with us).

The newswire machines have turned into Google searches and online newspaper access around the world. Tape machines and recorders changed first into cassette players and then, quickly, into digital recording devices which save the sounds on a computer chip. And our telephones have gone from tethered devices in our homes to cumbersome mobile models packed into a portable bag, to small but high powered computers that fit in our pockets while connecting us to the world and capturing high resolution images and videos that — not all that long ago — would have required two separate cameras back in the not-so-long-ago day.

Anyone trying to continued to resist those changes would have been left behind. So it is in the auto industry during its glamorous Cobo display as well.

A company called Local Motors out of Arizona spent 44 hours at Cobo this week building a two-seat, electric-powered car that auto show visitors will have a chance to drive on-site.

This vehicle, called the Strati, is made of a carbon fiber material and was built on one of those 3-D printers that can turn every home or business into a manufacturing center, making everything from candy to clothing to jewelry to cars.

The company hopes to have the Strati ready for consumer sales later this year, a vehicle capable of 35 miles per hour for a cost of about $25,000.

This is a first-of-its-kind product. If the history of technology has taught us anything, it is that Americans, and mankind in general, will continue to make improvements on advancements through the years.

There will be some job losses, but for every buggy whip maker, there’s a leather seat artisan. For every typewriter maker, there’s a computer analyst.

Enjoy the ride through history and grab a seat to witness it through your own eyes.

Let it rain!

Frank Beckmann is host of “The Frank Beckmann Show” on WJR-AM (760).