Thinking Big, Not Efficient

Oped by Francis Volpe critical of carmaker focus on inefficient vehicles.

Published: 16-Jan-2003

lass=detailstorylead>Protesters marching in an orderly but insistent fashion demanded to press their point on the executives who were laying out their future plans before an audience of their supporters.

An anti-war demonstration?

Nope, the Los Angeles Auto Show.

While the world's major auto manufacturers rolled out their pet projects in sunny Southern California, an ad hoc group of hybrid car owners fired up their Toyotas and Hondas and drove in a convoy to the show. Their demand was that the carmakers make a more serious effort to build fuel-efficient cars.

Along the same line, Arianna Huffington's Detroit Project finally got its first advertisements on the air. Based on the government's anti-drug spots that claim illegal drugs fund terrorists, they make a similar claim that foreign oil purchases benefit people who have given money to al Qaeda.

While I would quibble with both the drug spots and the Detroit Project on strictly factual grounds, I'm forced to agree that if you buy the drug spots, you have to go along on the oil question.

But just as the anti-drug spots didn't immediately end the drug trade in the U.S., I'm afraid the Detroit Project isn't going to make much headway even if it convinces people to dump their SUVs.

Because Americans love gas guzzlers. And an SUV isn't the only way in this world to waste gasoline.

Or it won't be if what I saw introduced at the L.A. and Detroit auto shows ends up in the showrooms.

Dodge showcased a new version of its vintage muscle-car motor, the "Hemi," in a low-slung sports wagon called the Magnum and a new version of its Durango SUV.

Ford unveiled the "427" concept, a retro exercise based on the 1965 NASCAR Galaxie powered by a souped-up V10 truck motor putting out 540 horsepower. Pontiac is bringing back the legendary GTO muscle car by combining an Australian GM coupe with the Corvette's V8.

But Cadillac won the hot-engine sweepstakes hands down with the Sixteen, named for its V16 engine displacing 13.6 liters and putting out 1,000 horsepower. That's the size of two Silverado pickup engines but with three times the power. And probably at least twice the need for fuel.

If there was any good news on the fuel economy front, it was muted compared to the above-mentioned introductions. Ford, GM and Chrysler all claimed to have hybrid gas-electric vehicles in the pipeline, but it looks like Toyota and Honda will have that market to themselves for at least another year.

Car companies use their auto show displays to show off the coming year's new products. The concept cars are mainly attention-grabbers, but they also serve as inkblot tests of the corporate mindset.

And with all the V8s, 10s, 12s and even 16s on display last week, it's obvious none of the carmakers is thinking particularly hard about better gas mileage.

Nor do they have an incentive to. The car manufacturers already sell lots of fuel-efficient cars in Europe and Japan they don't sell here because there's nothing prompting Americans to consider buying more economical cars.

Certainly nothing on the level of the Europeans and Japanese. They use the tax system to encourage people to buy efficient cars, both at purchase time and at the gas pump.

Here, all we have to encourage fuel conservation is the Detroit Project. There's certainly no encouragement from the federal government, which developed an energy plan in which conservation plays no role whatsoever.

This same government is currently planning a war in Iraq, which coincidentally has one of the two or three highest oil reserves in the world under its soil. Or not coincidentally, depending on your politics.

If we don't buy the Detroit Project's premise that foreign oil equals terrorism, maybe we could at least pretend to be embarrassed that we're planning to risk the lives of our soldiers at least partly to ensure that none of us will ever have to drive a fuel-economy champion.

This might be a better case for the Detroit Project to make. There's a convoy of hybrid-driving Californians who would probably fall right in line with that campaign.

And it wouldn't be that hard to sell to the rest of us.

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