Where is China’s Motorhead Messiah?

In the Hutong
Trying to break delicious.com
1549 hrs.

As we swing into the political season ahead of the unveiling of the 12th Five Year Plan, the question on many minds is whether (and to what extent) “indigenous innovation” is going to be at or near the top of China’s policy imperatives in the coming half-decade. This is not an idle concern.

The past several years have given the government and the Party plenty of time to not only think more carefully about the value of innovation for its own sake, but also of the unintended consequences of embracing the appearance of innovation as much (if not more than) innovation itself. What is more, I detect here in the capital a growing realization that not all worthy innovations come out of the labs of state-owned enterprises.

And none too soon. A recent article in Fast Company (“Motorhead Messiah“) on the work of independent automotive engineer Johnathan Goodwin underscores the last point (apologies for the long pull-quote):

Goodwin, a 37-year-old who looks like Kevin Costner with better hair, is a professional car hacker. The spic-and-span shop is filled with eight monstrous trucks and cars—Hummers, Yukon XLs, Jeeps—in various states of undress. His four tattooed, twentysomething grease monkeys crawl all over them with wrenches and welding torches.

Goodwin leads me over to a red 2005 H3 Hummer that’s up on jacks, its mechanicals removed. He aims to use the turbine to turn the Hummer into a tricked-out electric hybrid. Like most hybrids, it’ll have two engines, including an electric motor. But in this case, the second will be the turbine, Goodwin’s secret ingredient. Whenever the truck’s juice runs low, the turbine will roar into action for a few seconds, powering a generator with such gusto that it’ll recharge a set of “supercapacitor” batteries in seconds. This means the H3’s electric motor will be able to perform awesome feats of acceleration and power over and over again, like a Prius on steroids. What’s more, the turbine will burn biodiesel, a renewable fuel with much lower emissions than normal diesel; a hydrogen-injection system will then cut those low emissions in half. And when it’s time to fill the tank, he’ll be able to just pull up to the back of a diner and dump in its excess french-fry grease—as he does with his many other Hummers. Oh, yeah, he adds, the horsepower will double—from 300 to 600.

“Conservatively,” Goodwin muses, scratching his chin, “it’ll get 60 miles to the gallon. With 2,000 foot-pounds of torque. You’ll be able to smoke the tires. And it’s going to be superefficient.”

He laughs. “Think about it: a 5,000-pound vehicle that gets 60 miles to the gallon and does zero to 60 in five seconds!”

The dutiful production of a string of novel and interesting inventions may fluff the national ego and build an increment of soft power among the global geekocracy. But as the modern histories of America and Japan suggest, is the rapid industrialization of innovation, the process of taking something out of a lab or garage and making it accessible to the widest number of people, that creates economic value.

If China is going to reinvent its economy as a cradle of high-value innovation, it has to start figuring out where its Goodwins are, and how to bring them in from the cold.

I suspect that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Johnathan Goodwins scattered around China, each with a brilliant idea that could propel a company, a sector, an industry, or even perhaps the entire economy. But something is keeping them from standing up. And it is that same thing, I reckon, that keeps Johnathan Goodwin from giving up on GM and Ford ever paying for his ideas and instead coming to China to sell them to SAIC, or Beijing Auto.

Time to stop bankrolling high-cost, low-return projects to try and reinvent the microprocessor or build a cheaper 757. Fix the Goodwin problem, and China will become a global leader in innovation.

As the 12th Five Year Plan rolls out, read through the fine print and see if the country is starting to move in that direction. Otherwise, expect “indigenous innovation” to become nothing more than a fig-leaf for import substitution and subsidies for SOEs to continue reinventing wheels.