Friday, January 25, 2008

Short-Sighted Automakers Ignore Indicators

Back in 1973 when a worldwide oil crisis was triggered by OPEC, U.S. automakers plodded unimaginatively along, trying to use the same forumula for success that had worked for the last fifty years--during the years of cheap oil when gas guzzlers ruled the road. In comparison, Japanese automakers invaded America's shores with a succession of small, fuel-efficient vehicles that over time captured a significant portion of the market from domestic manufacturers.

Apparently, it was a lesson quickly forgotten. Kelpie Wilson, reporting on the North American International Auto Show in Truthout, saw more focus on bigger, more powerful truck; beer coolers built into vehicles; and luxury machinery than on fuel savings. The notion of peak oil and fuel efficiency was relegated to a small footnote, a barely acknowledged afterthought that plug-in hybrids and hyper-efficient vehicles may be the better choice to slow the advance of global warming.

On the CNBC broadcast about the show, Kelpie commented:

Between the NASCAR heroes and half-naked women you would have thought there might be a few minutes to look at some of the green cars on display. According to Auto Alliance, the show features 34 flex-fuel vehicles from eight manufacturers, one hydrogen vehicle from BMW, 24 hybrids from nine manufacturers, and ten new diesels from four manufacturers. Chevy and Toyota also have plug-in hybrid cars at the concept stage. But the CNBC television special had nothing to say about green cars until 44 minutes into the show when there was a comment that green cars were there and "there is ethanol, plug-ins, a lot of stuff they don't have yet, but great eco-fuel stuff to talk about." And that was it. They didn't bother to show the viewing audience a single green car.

Retro styling, along with retro attitudes, is all we are seeing from Detroit at a time when the world needs to radically reinvent everything to do with energy and the economy. It's not just about climate change either, but also the fact that global oil production is near its peak while population and consumption are both rising. Meanwhile, the only cure for the US recession is massive public investment in a new, post-oil energy and transportation infrastructure. The future will revolve around plug-in hybrids coupled with a smart electric grid and a huge expansion in mass transit buses and railroads. There is no real reason why Detroit should not be a part of that, but the auto industry and its supporters will have to work to make it happen.

The world changes while the automakers sleep.