July 1, 1997
One of the great legacies of Yogi Berra, legendary New York Yankees catcher and phrase-smith profundis, was his useful comment that “It’s deja vu all over again.”
It’s a handy phrase, often unfortunately so. Case in point, the US Clean Air Act. In its latest incarnation, the act proposes to significantly tighten US air quality standards–especially concerning particulate and ozone emissions. President Clinton, in a recent flurry of environmental initiatives that included tougher talk about binding greenhouse gas limits, has approved tougher metropolitan air quality standards. In so doing, he backed his EPA chief Carol Browner despite vociferous objections from both industry and nearly the entire US Conference of Mayors.
Opposition response has taken a familiar posture: “Impractical. Not technically feasible. Too expensive.” Deja vu all over again. (You know those signs you see in some businesses? “The difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.” I guess those just aren’t allowed at some companies. I wonder whether their financial performance is any better.)
History is filled with repetitions of this deja vu scenario. A collection of leaders–sometimes business executives, sometimes politicians, sometimes astute observers–says something can’t be done, or is a bad idea, or is too expensive. They are leaders, and thus highly credible.
But then some arrogant upstart comes along with a modest innovation, or sometimes a world-changing one.
Case in point: the mid-1970′s debate over the 1981 Clean Air Act. GM invested in lobbyists to fight the law. Honda invested in engineers and met the standards eight years early! In parallel blindness, Detroit misread public desire for efficient high quality cars, and Japanese companies ate US auto industry market share for lunch.
That limited vision wasn’t unique to the US auto industry. Business Week magazine had observed a few years before (August 2, 1968): “With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here [in the US], the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the US market.”
Remember when the electronics industry believed it wouldn’t be able to do without CFCs for cleaning printed circuit boards? Citrus-based alternatives turned out to be both effective and less expensive. Or when told Hewlett Packard told Steve Jobs, future founder of Apple Computer and NeXT, “We don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.” Or when Thomas J. Watson, chairman of the board of IBM, mused in the 1940s, “I think there’s a world market for about five computers.”
I don’t mean to be simplistic about this. Innovation is not simple, and all but impossible to guarantee. And for many it’s a one-shot deal; consistent innovation is no trivial challenge. And I say this not to chastise anyone, but to suggest that possibility and impossibility are sometimes functions of where one looks, what goals one sets. At the risk of sounding naive, I’m inclined to paraphrase Robert F Kennedy: “some see what could be, and ask why not?”
William McDonough of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry tells of searching through a large chemical company’s database to identify building blocks for “safe” dyes–not carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic, etc. The scan of thousands of chemicals yielded six that passed the safety screen, and which could be combined to yield any color except jet black. When he asked the company’s engineers why they had never used these chemicals to make safe dyes before, they answered: “No one ever asked.”
But back to automobiles and clean air. It’s ironic of course, that these pronouncements come at about the same time Toyota is readying the Japanese release of a “hybrid” automobile. Toyota is first to market using the concept that Amory Lovins <http://www.rmi.org>; introduced a few years ago as the “hypercar.” Lovins methodically examined the physics of the automobile, and concluded that a constellation of technologies–lightweight, superstreamlined composite bodies to reduce power required; regenerative braking to recapture driving energy that would otherwise be lost as heat; and a powertrain combining electric motors that drive the wheels with a small gasoline engine running at constant speed when needed to drive a generator to charge a small battery pack that feeds the electric motors–would produce a super-efficient vehicle both price- and performance-competitive with today’s sedans. As Lovins explains, “hybrids wouldn’t need the massive storage batteries that are largely responsible for BEVs’ short range, increased cost, and other limitations.”
Toyota is projecting only 66 miles per gallon, in contrast to the 200-300 mpg that Lovins calculates is feasible. But either performance level suggests a leap forward, not only in fuel efficiency, but also in emissions per passenger mile (Toyota estimates that carbon dioxide emissions will be cut in half while those of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides would be reduced 90 percent.)– plus a dramatic change in the equation of what’s possible, and quite a different perspective on the economic feasibility of clean air.
So there’s a choice, I guess. You can listen to the protestations of “It can’t be done.” Or, as Yogi also said, “You can observe alot by just watching.”