Detroit Is Wrecking Its SUV Edge

Commentary by David Welch and Kathleen Kerwin

Published: 26-Feb-2003

Just this past January, General Motors Corp. (GM ) CEO G. Richard Wagoner Jr. took center stage at the Detroit auto show to crow about a dozen new GM hybrid-electric vehicles that would significantly improve fuel economy. By decade's end, he promised, hybrid engines could power as many as one million GM vehicles, including some of its most-popular--and gas-guzzling--sport-utility vehicles. GM, he made resoundingly clear, would not be left behind in the race with Japanese auto makers for more fuel-efficient cars. Proclaimed Wagoner: "We have a responsibility to provide cleaner emissions and better fuel economy."

Nice sound bite. Too bad GM, together with its domestic rivals, is already furiously backpedaling. In mid-February, GM, Ford (F ), and DaimlerChrysler (DCX ) told the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, which enforces fuel economy standards, that they can't meet its proposed rules to raise truck and SUV mileage. That plan, to raise combined truck fuel economy from 20.7 to 22.2 miles per gallon by 2007, is just too challenging and too costly, the Big Three argue.

Just what planet are American auto execs living on? If ever there was a smart time to get foursquare behind the push for fuel economy, it's now. And given current technology--never mind stuff that's still on the drawing board--increasing fuel efficiency by less than a mile and a half per gallon in four years should be a minimum goal, not a stretch. With war looming in Iraq and oil prices soaring, U.S. auto makers ought to be pushing as hard as possible for advances in fuel economy. Yet in what could prove to be a big public-relations and marketing blunder, they are digging in their heels.



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