The Big Three have big heads, not big ideas

Auto factory workers are clearly not the only culprits that doomed the auto industry. Domestic auto executives and engineers haven't had a single great idea in decades! They have many inventions, but almost all of them don't amount to a hill of beans and none of them give the Big Three an edge over their foreign competitors, who are widely recognized as offering superior products. If the domestic auto executives didn't have such monumental egos, they'd realize that independent inventors such as myself have innovations that would allow them to leapfrog their competitors, leaving them in the dust in terms of safety, convenience, comfort, and gee-whiz features. I considered submitting my ideas, but was put off by statements that essentially say, “We'll consider your idea, but we won't pay you for it.”

Thumbs up to Mr. Kearns

The movie Flash of Genius describes how Robert Kearns, a college professor working at home in his spare time, invented the intermittent windshield wiper, which was stolen by many auto companies around the world. Kearns eventually prevailed in multiple lawsuits, but those lawsuits literally became his life, dominating and arguably destroying it, for the next few decades. Kearns showed admirable persistence in standing up to those goliath corporations. Even Thomas Edison was burned out by the years he spent in patent court.

Creating a prototype for an invention can take anywhere from hours to months. Inventions that are comparably complex to the intermittent windshield wiper can be prototyped in less than a week. That's the easy part—the really easy part. The hard part is getting a company to look at the device; that can take months or years of frustrating work. Most companies are too arrogant to admit that they don't have all of the good ideas (see my articles on the pigheaded CEO and close-minded big shots). For many independent inventors, the hassles associated with inventing are just too much, so they give up and eventually die with inventions tucked away in a manila folder that may never again be opened.

What good idea?
What good idea?

Result? Every year, many great ideas die on the grapevine. I've had more success than an average inventor, but 99% of my inventions—including the best ones—still haven't been commercialized. The inventions that I have could dramatically improve lives in so many ways that you'd be livid if you knew what you're missing, and why you're missing it: because American companies have made it too difficult to deal with them.

This impasse has slowed the flow of ideas from independent inventors to corporations, creating a stalemate that is choking the pace of American invention and therefore harming our economy. The reluctance of automakers to consider independent inventions is all the more ridiculous when you realize that they'd rather go out of business than make it easy for people to submit ideas that could revive the domestic auto industry. I know that is possible because my auto inventions alone could give them a substantial competitive edge, and there are surely many others like me who could help GM, Ford, and Chrysler if only they weren't so hardheaded. However, according to some experts, the US auto industry is likely doomed because it is “too out of touch with the sources of innovation.”

American automakers fought tooth and nail against seat belts (see note #1) and airbags, preferring to blame drivers for accidents and fatalities. I witnessed a similar tactic during my brief stint as a snowmobile magazine editor. Snowmobile manufacturers had a pat reply every time I broached that subject: almost every accident was related to driving under the influence of alcohol, speeding, or other operator error. True, but why impose a death sentence on someone (and often innocent victims, such as a 7-year-old girl who lived near me) for doing something stupid? I had a simple, low-cost invention that would dramatically reduce the number of snowmobile fatalities, but the manufacturers were not interested in hearing about that.

Incidentally, snowmobile magazines and manufacturers contribute to the speeding problem by glorifying it. Pick up a magazine or brochure and what do you see? Almost every snowmobile pictured appears to be speeding or is actually airborne. This may lead people to conclude that snowmobiling in that way is safe. Hardly. After working as an ER doctor in one of the most popular snowmobiling areas of Michigan, I saw countless injuries, ranging from minor to horrifying—such as snowmobilers whose heads were essentially liquefied into soup inside their helmets during high-speed collisions. I described more snowmobiling injuries (and much more!) in True Emergency Room Stories.

Pigheadedness isn't limited to automobile and snowmobile manufacturers, of course. In 1905, Orville and Wilbur Wright tried to interest the United States War Department in their new invention, a practical airplane, but they were repeatedly turned down. The War Department initially thought that they were crackpots, and later deemed the airplane to be of no military significance. When the personal computer was invented, many experts scoffed at its importance, assuredly declaring that only a few isolated eggheads would find a use for it. Even Microsoft and Bill Hates, who take pride in being innovative, were laggard in appreciating the significance of the Internet and responding to it.

light bulb - great idea

Judging by what he now says, Hates is ostensibly interested in not missing the opportunity to capitalize on new ideas, but is he? I have good reason to doubt that. One of my inventions is a dream-come-true breakthrough that gives computers an amazing new gee whiz functionality that is arguably even more useful to more people than the Internet. I doubt that Microsoft or a similarly large corporation will be the one to market it, though, because as companies increase in size, they typically become increasingly blind to the new ideas that could enable them to continue their once-impressive pace of innovation. There is no reason why established giant corporations cannot be just as innovative as start-up companies. In fact, for a variety of reasons, they should be considerably more innovative. With rare exceptions, they generally are not. Their market value stagnates or falls as their think tank dries up (see note #2). Without many good new ideas, smaller and more innovative companies overtake them. General Motors once was the most valuable corporation in the world, but it would have gone bankrupt without the massive transfusion of cash from taxpayers.

There are two important lessons here:

  1. Success is the mother of complacency.
  2. Many successful businessmen owe their achievements less to extraordinary brainpower and receptiveness to new ideas than to having the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. Even Bill Gates has acknowledged that he could not replicate his legendary success if he were to start over now. Good fortune is one of the sometimes necessary catalysts of success, but the inherent improbability of luck ensures that its lifespan is limited. Unless corporations have brilliant ideas to fill the void as luck evaporates, their success will sputter to a stop (see note #3).

Business failure is not always a bad thing, because it can make room in the marketplace for smaller and more innovative companies that might ultimately produce better products. For example, it is difficult for any new snowmobile manufacturer to get his foot in the door because the marketplace is dominated by the Big Four manufacturers: Ski-doo, Arctic Cat, Yamaha, and Polaris. Most people who buy a snowmobile purchase one of their models without thinking about what they're missing in terms of radical innovations in comfort, safety, and convenience. So what do we get year after year? Snowmobiles that are incrementally better, not transformatively superior. I know an innovative man who has been a snowmobile dealer for decades. He is related to the Research & Development head for one of the Big Four, but that relative wasn't interested in even listening to any of his ideas! That company frequently pats itself on the back for being innovative, but I haven't bought a snowmobile from them in many years because the interim improvements don't give me enough motivation to open my checkbook.

With that as a preface, consider what might happen if every automaker in the world suddenly went out of business. The void left by their departure would create a vacuum that would draw in new businesses with new ideas. When production resumed a few years from now—don't worry, we have plenty of cars to tide us over—automobiles might finally enter the 21st century. Instead, we're stuck with inside-the-box thinkers with Stone Age ideas of how to transport people from Point A to Point B.

Even my receptiveness to new ideas is not always as good as it should be. After my father was murdered many years ago, the detective told me that Dad was working on a way to make steam engines more efficient. I've heard of others trying to do the same, and the common denominator in their lack of success is traceable to an ignorance of the physics involved in heat transfer. That limitation appeared to be insurmountable, so I assumed that dear old Dad was headed down a dead-end road. (I had no contact with him for many years before his death, so the steam engine project was news to me.)

Then, a few years ago, I read about someone who invented a way to circumvent that supposedly insurmountable obstacle (see note #4). When I challenge neighborhood kids to be creative, I am sometimes amazed by their brilliance. The moral of the story is that great ideas can come from the unlikeliest of places, so we should all be open to considering them. A corollary to this is that we should not be penalized for companies, such as the domestic automakers, who want to live in the Stone Age and put us in the Poor House for their bullheadedness.


1 Ralph Nader's 1965 classic Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile detailed how car manufacturers resisted the introduction of safety features, preferring to spend money on styling.

2 For more insight into this, read The Innovator's Dilemma and The Innovator's Solution.

3 Leonard Mlodinow, author of The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, wrote a fascinating and provocative article entitled The Meritocracy Paradox for Forbes magazine that discussed how hotshot CEOs are often just the beneficiaries of luck, not everlasting talent. Similarly, as discussed in That Hit Song You Love Was a Total Fluke, luck influences what products become hits or flops.

4 Might my father have conceived of the same method years beforehand? It will be interesting to find out once I get my hands on his laptop computer, which will be held as evidence until his two killers are caught and convicted.

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The views expressed on this page may or may not reflect my current opinions, nor do they necessarily represent my past ones. After reading a slice of what I wrote in my various websites and books, you may conclude that I am a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican. Wrong; there is a better alternative. Just as the primary benefit from debate classes results when students present and defend opinions contrary to their own, I use a similar strategy as a creative writing tool to expand my brainpower—and yours. Mystified? Stay tuned for an explanation. PS: The wheels in your head are already turning a bit faster, aren't they?

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Reference: Imagining dialogue can boost critical thinking: Excerpt: “Examining an issue as a debate or dialogue between two sides helps people apply deeper, more sophisticated reasoning …”

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