Last week was yet another dim seven days for Michigan’s manufacturing industry, with several auto companies again posting quarterly losses. But in the cloud of gloom that has become the rooftop of Detroit’s economy, there’s one cause for hope, and it comes in the form of a fruit – an apple, to be exact.

Angela Cesere

This past week, Detroit’s two big automakers did one of the smartest things they have done in a long time – they embraced the iPod.

Starting on next year’s models, cars made by Ford and General Motors will have ports to plug in portable digital-music devices. Drivers will be able to smoothly transfer their music from home to work to school to car, only having to pull out their earbuds and plug in their iPod to continue their constant stream of tunes.

This, more than all their restructuring plans or talks of international alliances, gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, Detroit’s economic backbone will be able to creep back into the black once again. I don’t understand the inner workings of the auto industry, but this move shows one thing: Ford and GM are finally getting it. Miracle of all miracles, it turns out that in order to stay competitive, producers have to respond to consumers’ demands.

In the days before $75-a-barrel oil, domestic automakers had the intuitive sense to follow the market, building millions upon millions of the now-infamous sport utility vehicles. As soon as they rolled off the line, American drivers bought Explorers, Suburbans and Trailblazers in hoards. Drivers loved them for their off-road capabilities and their ability to carry an entire soccer team quite comfortably. Domestic automakers became drunk on their profits, reaping the rewards of a seemingly unending supply of oil.

But then that all changed. Now $3 is not only the price of a cheap cup of coffee at Starbucks, it’s also the price of a gallon of gas (if you’re lucky). Amazingly, gas guzzlers are suddenly unpopular. As sales of SUVs slip out from under the feet of the Big Three, their knack for making cars that sell is also no more.

But with this iPod announcement, it seems Ford and GM are catching on. iPods are some of the fastest-selling products on the market. Rarely can you walk across campus without seeing at least six students intently entangled in an iTunes-induced haze. It only makes sense to make cars compatible with this commercial phenomenon.

The problem is, it’s probably too late. Several foreign automakers already offer iPod hookups, and their designs are much more user-friendly. Henry Ford may have been the father of automotive innovation, but that title has since flown away from D-town. Now, it seems, the Big Three constantly play pick-up, slightly modifying what other countries have already sold. They missed the boat on hybrids, and now they have missed it on iPods.

That doesn’t mean it always has to be that way; Detroit automakers can reclaim their glory. They might not be able to get back to the time when the Motor City ruled the auto world, but they can at least return to respectability in the industry. But they’re going to have to pay more attention than they have in the past.

When the next iPod-like phenomenon comes along, they’d better be ready. If they’re not, there’s a good chance that our generation won’t hear them.

Hildreth can be reached at childret@umich.edu.

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