Did Heinlein See The Future of the U.S. Auto Industry?


Reader James Blakey reminded us of a bit from Robert Heinlein's 1950s classic "cryogenic sleeper awakes" novel The Door Into Summer that seems especially relevant in these days of Government Motors.

From pages 140-141 of the current edition of the novel, via Amazon's "search inside" function. The 20th century narrator is confused by an element of 21st century auto industry practices, launched by government loans to the auto industry:

The job I found was crushing new ground limousines so that they could be shipped back to Pittsburgh as scrap. Cadillacs, Chryslers, Eisenhowers, Lincolns—all sort of great big, new powerful turbobuggies without a kilometer on their clocks. Drive'em between the jaws, then crunch! smash! crash!—scrap iron for blast furnaces.

It hurt me at first since I was riding the ways to work and didn't own so much as a Grav-Jumper. I expressed my opinion of it almost lost my job….until the shift boss remembered I was a Sleeper and really didn't understand.

"It's a simple matter of economics, son. These are surplus cars the government has accepted as security against price-support loans. They're two years old now and then can never be sold….so the government junks them and sells them back to the steel industry.

You can't run a blast furnace just on ore; you have to scrap iron as well. You ought to know that even if you are a Sleeper. Matter of fact with high-grade ore so scarce, there's more and more demand for scrap. The steel industry needs these cars."

"But why build them in the first place if they can't be sold? It seems wasteful."

"It just seems wasteful. You want to throw people out of work? You want to run down their standard of living?"

"Well why not ship them abroad? It seems to me they could get more for them on the open market abroad then they are worth as scrap."

"What! and ruin the export market? Besides, if we started dumping cars abroad everybody we'd get everyone sore at us—Japan, France, Germany, Great Asia, everybody. What are you aiming to do? Start a war?"

Well, if auto industry practices get as bad as Heinlein guessed here (and his future 2000 in this novel written in the 1950s is already our past), maybe we can just replace cars and roads with nationwide conveyor belts….

See my assessment of Heinlein's importance from Reason magazine back in 2007.