retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Now available on iTunes…

To listen, click on the “MNB Radio” icon on the left hand side of the home page, Click here.

Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe and this is MNB Radio, available on iTunes and brought to you by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design.

A few years ago there was a documentary called Who Killed The Electric Car?, which looked at the reasons and people behind the virtual destruction of the electric car industry in the United States. The film came out in 2006. The events in question took place in the 1990s.

Apparently, you cannot keep a good idea down.

The New York Times reported the other day that “the San Francisco building code will soon be revised to require that new structures be wired for car chargers. Across the street from City Hall, some drivers are already plugging converted hybrids into a row of charging stations.

“In nearby Silicon Valley, companies are ordering workplace charging stations in the belief that their employees will be first in line when electric cars begin arriving in showrooms. And at the headquarters of Pacific Gas and Electric, utility executives are preparing ‘heat maps’ of neighborhoods that they fear may overload the power grid in their exuberance for electric cars.”

Among the cars expected to be available: the Nissan Leaf, and the Chevrolet Volt.

The Times noted that “as automakers prepare to introduce the first mass-market electric cars late this year, it is increasingly evident that the cars will get their most serious tryout in just a handful of places. In cities like San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and San Diego, a combination of green consciousness and enthusiasm for new technology seems to be stirring public interest in the cars.”

It isn’t only these markets that seem to be preparing for the electric car. We had a story recently on MNB about how a new Whole Foods being built in Connecticut is going to have free charging stations in the parking lot for electric cars that are parked there. It does not take an enormous leap of imagination to think that this approach will be repeated first by companies thinking that such stations reinforce their image and value proposition, and later by companies who see a wave coming and want to be there.

I keep thinking, though, about the auto executives who more than a decade ago decided that there was no future for the electric car.

If they had believed otherwise - if they had embraced the notion that a better, affordable, more efficient and effective electric car could be built and popularized - can you imagine where we would be today?

Better off than we are now, I suspect.

Of course, there will be folks who will minimize the importance of this trend, who will say that this for San Francisco and Pacific Northwest liberal tree huggers and nobody else. They’re wrong. They’re just so locked into old-world thinking - like those auto company executives of a decade ago - that they are unwilling to accept the notion of change. (Or they are oil company executives. Take your pick.)

It is this sort of thinking that led to stories like another one run by the Times the other day, pointing out the opening of a new high-speed rain line in China - one of 42 that have either opened or will open in that country by 2012, linking the country with more than 8,000 miles of track, creating jobs, making China more economically competitive.

Compare that to the US, where our first high speed rail line is scheduled to open in 2014 - with an 84-mile route that connects Tampa and Orlando. Great if you want to go from the west coast of Florida to Disney World, but probably not a significant achievement when you consider that at that point we’ll be almost one-sixth of the way through the 21st century.

There is a lot of discussion about American exceptionalism, and it is a concept one would like to believe in. But you look at how we approach innovations like the electric car and high speed rail lines, and you have to wonder if we really deserve the description.

Certainly there continue to be examples of how America is at the head of the innovation curve. Steve Jobs of Apple, to use one easy example. I might argue that Wegmans is a great example of American innovation at its best. But there aren’t enough examples. Not nearly enough.

Now, we can’t all build high speed trains or electric cars. But we certainly have the ability to create an environment for innovation in our businesses. We have the opportunity to be exceptional and forward-thinking, rather than tied to old world ideas and constructs.

But it requires action. It demands persistence, because if you aren’t personally and professionally exceptional each and every day, then all you really have is a resume and a reputation.

And it has to start now, because without it, irrelevance is just around the corner. We’ll know it, because we’ll be mired in the mud of bureaucracy and conventional thinking...watching the high speed trains and electric cars go by.

For MNB Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.
KC's View: