Consumer Electronics Show Shows Just How Slow Autos Can Be

Last Updated Jan 8, 2010 10:51 PM EST

As a stranger in the strange land of this week's Consumer Electronics Show, I was struck again and again by how fast the CES world moves, versus the auto industry.

To re-use a simile I once mentioned, it's like in the movie, "The Matrix" where one side in a fistfight is moving so fast, it looks as if the other guy is moving in slow motion.

That's partly because of the nature of the two businesses. A car is a lot more complex and poses a lot more safety and durability problems than a hand-held electronic device. Ford (F) took a moment at CES out of its newfound status as a wanna-be consumer electronics company to point that out.

"In one area, we have to act like an automotive company, and that is durability safety and testing - for conditions much more brutal than the average handheld device is designed for," said Derek Kuzak, Ford global vice president of product development, in a Jan. 7 speech.

But to some extent the slow pace of automotive development has also allowed auto industry executives to outlast their own failures.

(No reflection on Kuzak. He reached his high position after developing a string of European small cars for Ford that are selling well and that serve as a basis for Ford's current global strategy on fuel-efficiency)

Kuzak aside, auto executives invariably change jobs every few years, long before the consequences of their decisions show up on the showroom floor. If automotive boards and CEOs have been holding managers accountable for bad decisions they took four, five or even more years ago, I never heard about it. The car companies tend to blame "Wall Street" for short-sightedness, but in my experience the car companies historically don't need much encouragement to focus on short-term results.

It's true that the car companies, especially the domestic ones, are physically unable to respond quickly to quick changes in consumer tastes. But if the car companies had stopped the practice of allowing executives to "fail upward," maybe it would have taken more than a spike in gas prices and a recession to drive Chrysler and General Motors into bankruptcy.

On Jan. 6, I had a fascinating interview with Chevon Hicks, the creative director and president of Heavenspot, a "digital advertising agency" based in Los Angeles. At only 37, Hicks has had time to start his company, sell it and buy it back again.

Yet he practically apologized that it took him eight months and three different teams of developers to come up with his latest project, an app called Ziggy Marley's Music Mixer that was released last month after winning a coveted relationship with Apple (AAPL) iTunes.

"I never give up. That's something about me. I just never give up," he said, as if he had been laboring for years. I was sitting there thinking eight months was pretty fast. It would take the average car company eight months or more to decide whether to do anything in the first place, before they ever started working on it.

Then on Jan. 7, I better understood what Hicks meant. Ford (F) said it took Pandora and Twitter less than 10 days to develop apps that Ford proudly unveiled at CES on its latest cars, and that Ford will roll out across the lineup. That's fast.

I was also reminded of a presentation last month by a team from the University of Michigan at Dearborn that worked with Ford to come up with some proposed apps for the latest generation of the Ford Sync communication system, paired up with the new MyFord user interface, which Ford also unveiled at CES.

Speed was the watchword for the 100-day Michigan project, which came up with three proposed apps. Coming up with the apps themselves was the shortest part of the project. The group spent most of its time coming up with ideas that it discarded. The group's philosophy included a slogan that they should work fast, but also, "Fail fast, and learn from your mistakes."

Hicks said there are web sites dedicated to apps that failed to win the Apple seal of approval, so developers can learn from the mistakes of others.

In contrast, the fear in the auto industry is, "Never fail, because the consequences are too high." In practice, that can become, "Make sure you move on, before your failures become obvious."

That's not an option in the consumer electronics business, where a new concept hits the stores so much faster.

Photo: Ford