Hey Carly, Invent This

A turnaround starts by turning around an image. Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has launched the public phase of her turnaround effort with a symbol, the garage of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. The idea, in her words, is “we’ll return to the rules of the garage” and invent.(I wonder how many viewers know she’s the boss and not a spokesmodel?)

Well invent this, Carly. It’s mainly a problem in materials science, but it’s a big problem and – if you solve it – a huge market.

We’ll start with the cutaway view. It’s a hard but flexible plastic casing with two wires inside. The thinner wire carries data (we could run fiber to connectors at each 12-foot length if you like), while the thicker wire carries electric power. We need to fit a thin flange inside to reach those lines, and when the flange is out, the plastic should close over the opening. We’ll connect them like old transistors, and build a simple machine to dig the six-inch-deep holes necessary to bury these in the street.

We’re building a trolley line, at first. An electric bus verifies itself (and its route) through the data line, which runs under TCP/IP, and takes power from the power line. (Without verification it can’t work – eventually we’re building a billing system.) The weight of the bus can be limited to the mass needed to support the passengers and to transfer the electric energy to the wheels. (Think aluminum.)

The bus and trolley lines are sold first as an alternative to light rail. Transit systems are the first customers. As the light rail lines are completed, you can sell more for major bus lines, then for minor bus lines. Now you’re replacing carbon-based vehicles with electricity.

Once you’ve got your bus system in place, you can run these lines onto minor streets and offer “taxi” service as an alternative to an in-town car: Smart cards in unattended cars let passengers pay just for the trips they make. In 20 years, commuters might buy their own cars to make sure of catching a ride. Lines can bridge cities for longer trips. Since the “driving” is controlled by the computer network (the data lines), there should be few accidents, and you can assume that any collision between a carbon-based vehicle and an electric vehicle is the fault of the carbon-based vehicle. (An audit trail on all trips can verify this.)

It’s a big project, but there are economic models that work every step of the way. You can patent the basic system and license production to anyone, while building production capacity to dominate once patents expire.

No, this doesn’t seem to have much to do with electronic commerce, does it? But there is an e-commerce point to be made: If the industry is to fulfill its potential, its reach must extend deep into the real world. We need to think differently to reach these opportunities. If Carly doesn’t, maybe you can.

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