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3/5/2009
04:15 PM
Cora Nucci
Cora Nucci
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As GM Fizzles, MIT Transportation Initiative Must Sizzle

GM released its annual report Thursday, and while no one was expecting sunshine and unicorns to float off its pages, this is a dark document. Here's a taste: "There is no assurance that the global automobile market will recover."

GM released its annual report Thursday, and while no one was expecting sunshine and unicorns to float off its pages, this is a dark document. Here's a taste: "There is no assurance that the global automobile market will recover."The possibility that the automaker may drive off a cliff into a smoldering heap of Chapter 11 is real. In three years GM has racked up $82 million in losses. It has received $13 billion in federal bailout bucks and has its hand out for billions more.

If the restructuring plan it submitted to the Treasury Department last month fails, "we would not be able to continue as a going concern and could potentially be forced to seek relief through a filing under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code," the report explains, cheerlessly.

Unfortunately, GM is not alone in its pain and misery. Take a look at these steep drops in February car sales:

  • GM -52%
  • Chrysler -44%
  • Ford -48%
  • Toyota -37%

How did things get this bad? The answer is a tangled tale spanning decades of misjudgments and bad decisions capped by the global economic crisis, or Great Recession, or whatever pet name you have for the thing that collapses banks and makes homes and jobs disappear.

And I'm only touching on the auto industry here. I haven't even mentioned the world's trucking, freight and commuter rail, container shipping, or airline industries. I'm reminded of a former colleague who, when stumped by a big problem, used to cup his head in his hands and moan, "we need to get some smart people in here."

Well, it's very late for GM -- maybe too late -- but here come some smart people. This week MIT announced its MIT@Transportation initiative.

Faculty from the MIT's Engineering school, the Architecture and Planning school, and the Sloan School of Management are embarking on a two-year pilot program "to pioneer transportation technology and solutions for the 21st century."

"It's not just the technology, it's the deployment and diffusion," said Sloan professor John Sterman, in a statement, cautioning that in the absence of a strategy that takes into account the big picture, many innovations "have failed, often after a spectacular start," a phenomenon he calls, "sizzle and fizzle."

GM's grave state is a symptom of a transportation infrastructure in dire trouble. Better planning, design, engineering, and business practices may start to put some of the sizzle back in the global transportation picture in the form of cleaner, more efficient technologies.

Untested as it is, I'd like to see MIT@Transportation replicated and spread to other institutions in some coordinated fashion. Mobilize, smart people. Quickly!

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