Yesterday, TechCrunch posted a letter to President Obama from Spark Capital's Todd Dagres, who offers the president some suggestions for dealing with the Big Three. In a nutshell, Dagres argues that the biggest problem with the auto industry is that Detroit doesn't design cars Americans want to buy. His big idea: put Steve Jobs in charge of a combined Chrysler and GM.
As Dagres' reasoning goes, Steve Jobs has put Apple at the forefront of the industrial design world and helped create at least two industry-changing devices: the iPod and the iPhone. People are crazy about those two gadgets, so obviously Jobs is perfectly suited to give Detroit its groove back.
...Oh, where to begin?
On the one hand, we agree that Steve Jobs is kind of awesome. Yeah, he stumbled hard in the early 90s when he let Bill Gates leapfrog to the top of the computing heap, but Jobs clawed his way back with sleek, simple, tech toys. So as far as computing and the digital lifestyle are concerned, Jobs has been on a winning streak.
On the other hand, there are some real problems with Dagres' arguments:
- American auto design is not the problem. Well, okay, it's part of the problem, but there's far more to it than that. Sure, Jobs could crank out a sweet looking ride, but no one's going to buy it until someone addresses the other issues--including America's poor perception of homegrown brands.
- Cars are not iPods. People are willing to spend money on a nifty looking iPod so they can listen to Judas Priest on the Stairmaster. If the iPod breaks, no biggie: by the time that happens, the buyer has probably gotten $100 of value from the thing. That same "disposable" mindset doesn't apply to cars, which owners expect to be both cool and reliable.
- Jobs isn't always known for being cheap. Some Apple products--especially Apple computers--are priced well above comparable PC models. That's the same problem affecting a lot of U.S. car models: buyers think they can score similarly built foreign autos for less.
- Jobs also isn't known for being innovative on the maintenance front. On the whole, Apple is pretty proprietary with its technology. Unlike, say, Google, the company doesn't have a tendency to share (e.g. the until-recent playback restrictions on iTunes purchases and the way that iPhone apps are vetted). Heck, you can't even change the iPhone's battery on your own. Can you imagine a car like that?
- Like all cults, the cult of personality is dangerous. Many people think of Steve Jobs as a messiah--a leader who can do no wrong. Frankly, that's a little scary. Leaders are fallible, and can lead others into dead ends if their choices aren't questioned. (There are several recent examples we could mention, but won't.) Furthermore, when charismatic leaders like Jobs take control, finding a replacement means almost certain doom for the company--or at least it makes for a very awkward transition.
Just to be clear, we're not saying that the auto industry doesn't need leaders. It does--especially dynamic, engaged, engaging leaders. But just as many singers fail at acting (e.g. 50 Cent, Britney Spears), and many actors fail at singing (e.g. Tyra Banks, Gillian Anderson), and Paris Hilton fails at nearly every job she's had (save one), we probably shouldn't assume that Jobs' skill sets are so easily transferable.