WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, WV - Picture this: Every car or truck becomes a website connected with a smart card to an Internet server.
Like your Social Security number, the vehicle's unique VIN (vehicle identification number) and an access card would be the keys to linking with the worldwide web.
The advantages would be monumental: Information about where and when the vehicle was built, who produced which components, the United Auto Workers folks who assembled it, service alerts and records, and details of the sales transaction would be readily accessible.
All of this, and more, is already possible, says one of cyberspace's top stars, boyish Scott McNealy, 45, chairman and CEO of Sun Microsystems Inc. based in Palo Alto, CA. Sun invented the Java software program, and now has 10 million Java cards in circulation.
Addressing a technical session of the Detroit Section of the Society of Automotive Engineers here without notes or a script, Mr. McNealy sends a wakeup call, arguing that unless automakers snatch the lead they stand to lose out bigtime on the exploding e-commerce market.
He snipes freely at the supplier and automotive executives and engineers in his audience. "The car is already talking with cards at toll booths and with cell phones, but you're not," he argues. "You need telemetry and websites to track the car through its life and maybe afterward for parts. You can make a killing on your (Internet access) cards, but you aren't."
A consummate salesman, he quite naturally makes a case for Java. "You've got 50 to 100 computers in your cars but they aren't linked" to a web access card such as Java's, he unabashedly explains.
Admitting after his talk that "my whole idea was to break some glass" to stir his automotive audience to toss aside traditional thinking and get with the cyber agenda, Mr. McNealy warns that unless Detroit takes on the challenge it may well cede lucrative new market opportunities to others.
"Microsoft wants to know more about your customers than you do," he exclaims. "They can profile your customers better than you can." Connected via telemetry, "They can aim you to a Shell station when you're down to an eighth of a tank, ring a bell to guide you to the nearest McDonald's or aim you toward a quick-lube when you need service," he says. The lure: It's all basically free, with revenues generated from participating companies.
Citing a recent survey, Mr. McNealy says 80% of the respondents want e-mail in their cars, and 35% indicate they would change their purchase choice "to get the right information system in their cars."
What's needed most is a sea-change in how automakers and suppliers look at technology, he suggests. The son of a former top American Motors Corp. executive, Bill McNealy, Scott grew up in suburban Detroit. Even though by most measures he's still a young man, Mr. McNealy says that "we grew up without networks; now kids are growing up wired. Age is a disability in Silicon Valley."
He recalls that his father belonged to the prestigious Bloomfield Hills Country Club near Detroit. "He didn't see too many people with rings in their bodies and tattoos," he quips.
During his 18 years at Sun Microsystems "I haven't heard the word 'seniority' once," he says, further underscoring the vast chasm in thinking between the software (i.e. Silicon Valley) and hardware (Detroit) industries.
He urges automakers to "network everything" in their vehicles. Owners of a sport/utility vehicle, for example, could turn their SUV into a mobile office, reducing rent and utility costs. "Have them spend that money on your vehicles," he suggests.
In his business, everything is "click and go, not like the auto industry," he observes, urging openness and trust as, he says, it's practiced in the computer industry. "Don't protect yourselves (when it comes to innovations). Where suppliers are involved, collaborate on protocols to lower costs of new features. And get top-level involvement to set standards for networks and nomenclatures."
Mr. McNealy's point, of course, was to shock his audience and fellow panelists into thinking outside their traditional boxes. His panel included Richard Parry-Jones,Motor Co. group vice president; Tom Sidlik, DaimlerChrysler Corp. executive vice president-procurement and supply; Jim Taylor, Corp. vehicle line executive; and William Kozyra, president of Teves Inc.
If they, and those in attendance, were ready to jump on new innovations such as vehicle websites, it was not immediately evident. Rather, they raised numerous questions. Examples:
n Affordability: "Cupholders don't provide any external revenues, unless they fit a McDonald's or a Slurpy cup," Mr. McNealy says. "You've got to think about technology outside the box and outside the car. You are now dealing with a retailer who wants your owner's pocketbook, like GPS (global positioning satellite) on all vehicles. Car companies are going to have to get outside the garage and get into networks. You are part of a network economy if you want to reach out and grab it."
n Privacy: "Auto companies must tell customers what information they're gathering and what it'll be used for."
n Idea generation: How, asks Mr. Sidlik, do you elicit ideas from staffers who get paid whether their innovations work or not? Mr. McNealy: "A young programmer came in with Java. Now we're doing $14 billion (in annual sales) and have a net worth of $80 billion."
"We're seeing a convergence of automotive and information technology," observes Mr. Parry-Jones. Now maybe it's time to break some more glass.