If what’s past is prologue, Ford Motor Co.’s announcement that it is abandoning its traditional car offerings to concentrate on pickups and SUVs should be setting off alarm bells. The move could end up forcing Ford and other automakers to weather the same gas-price spikes and economic headwinds as they did in 2008, a time that revealed Detroit’s overreliance on trucks and SUVs in dramatic fashion. But the lessons of the past can be a trap, too, and there’s a risk that the traumas of 2008 could lead the industry to fight its last war rather than looking forward to the next.
It’s a different world now than it was in 2008: Government efficiency and emissions standards that had stagnated in the 1990s and 2000s are going up again, continually requiring cars, trucks and SUVs to have improved fuel economy whether the market demands it or not. Hybrid drivetrains have become an increasingly mainstream option. Electric cars may not yet be a major player in the market, but they are increasingly defining tastes at the high end. Finally, an explosion of options offers a dizzying array of new smartphone-based mobility technologies, from ride hailing to shared bikes and scooters and, eventually, autonomous robo-taxis. Though many of these new options are still in their infancies, the emergence of new multimodal mobility options provides an important context for the auto industry.