Fool Cells - How Detroit Plays Americans For A Bunch Of Suckers

Jack Doyle, a Washington-based consultant and writer, is author of 
Taken For A Ride: Detroit's Big Three & The Politics of Pollution. 
His articles have appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The 
Boston Globe, The New York Times, Newsday, The Washington Post and 
other publications.

On February 6, President Bush presented the details on his new 
"Freedom Car" proposal. The "freedom" Bush is hawking in his new gift 
to Detroit comes from hydrogen fuel-cell technology, which could 
legitimately revolutionize transportation in this country and around 
the world. Freedom Car also helps Bush's image, since it creates the 
impression the United States will be "free" from its dependency on 
foreign oil.

Unfortunately, the hydrogen car George Bush first gushed about in his 
state of the union -- and the $1.2 billion program offered to help 
create it -- are simply more of Detroit's fantasyland politics, 
designed to keep Congress from enacting tough fuel economy standards. 
Every time Congress and the public get close to thinking that real 
fuel economy is a good idea, Detroit rolls out some whiz-bang 
autorama to provide the illusion of progress. Bush's proposal to 
provide for clean cars -- which is laudable on its face -- is but the 
latest in a long line of Detroit-White House "partnerships" dating to 
the Nixon-era that only provide diversion and political cover, not 
actual clean cars.

"Bush's proposal... is but the latest in a long line of Detroit-White 
House "partnerships" dating to the Nixon-era that only provide 
diversion and political cover."

During the annual parade of auto shows in 2002, General Motors, a 
company which has lost 25 points of market share since the '50s, 
rolled out a futuristic-looking automotive underbody "skateboard" 
called Autonomy. Someday -- GM didn't say exactly when -- Autonomy 
would be crammed full of hydrogen-powered fuel cells and computers, 
and smog would end. A few days after GM's show, U.S. Energy Secretary 
of Energy, Spencer Abraham, and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), were on 
hand with GM and DaimlerChrysler to announce the death of one federal 
"supercar" program and the creation of another. Being terminated was 
a Clinton-era program -- a 10-year joint venture with Detroit known 
as the "Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles" (PNGV) that was 
supposed to produce an 80 mpg family car. In its place, the Bush 
administration substituted a program focused not on fuel-efficiency 
but on hydrogen fuel-cell technology, "Freedom Car." However, most of 
these ventures go nowhere, as Clinton's "supercar" program shows.

At its September 1993 White House unveiling, Bill Clinton compared 
the PNGV to the Apollo project that put a man on the moon. GM's CEO 
at the time, Jack Smith, said the efficiency gains to come from the 
new venture would amount to "nothing less than a major, even radical, 
breakthrough." A whole new class of car would follow, he assured his 
listeners. Sold to Congress as way to make the Big Three competitive 
with the Japanese, PNGV became the perfect political tool to keep 
Congress from moving to improve fuel economy, to tout as the 
industry's global warming fighter, and to help undermine California's 
electric vehicle program.

Meanwhile, as Detroit and Washington became comfortable in their new, 
10-year research venture, the Japanese were making real improvements. 
At the Tokyo Auto Show in October 1997, where the Big Three were 
pushing a distinctly American lineup of big luxury cars, pick-up 
trucks, and high-powered muscle cars, Toyota's new car, the Prius, 
was at center stage. The Prius was unlike any car on the road in 
America or anywhere else, and the Big Three didn't have one. Known in 
the business as a "hybrid," the Prius was the first in a distinctly 
new wave of vehicle: a half-gasoline, half-electric-powered 
automobile that was far more fuel efficient and far less polluting 
than any vehicle of its time. Rated at 66 mpg for fuel economy and 
producing half the carbon dioxide of a conventional car, the Prius 
offered Toyota a competitive advantage in a warming world. Privately, 
Big Three executives were stunned by the Prius.

Ironically, Toyota's Prius was instigated at least in part by PNGV, 
which the Japanese -- having redoubled their R&D effort to compete -- 
mistook for a serious American effort to improve fuel economy. "While 
we were talking about hybrids," later mused auto industry consultant 
Victor Wouk, "the Japanese were building one." Nor did PNGV apply to 
light trucks or SUVs. "While PNGV was going on," observed former 
Chrysler official Tom Gage in April 1999, "light trucks captured 50 
percent of the market, with their fuel economy in the 13- to 17-mpg 

The fact is, for much of the last 30 years or more, Detroit has not 
been making the technological innovations in cars or trucks that 
really matter -- those under the hood, in engines, transmissions, and 
alternative propulsion. (SUVs, after all, are not an innovation; they 
required no new technical breakthrough or significant engineering 
advances.) Instead, Detroit has remained steadfastly tied to the 
internal combustion engine, ratcheting up its power and acceleration, 
but not its efficiency. As a consequence, America is paying big time 
for Detroit's technological negligence.

Privately, Big Three executives were stunned by the Prius.

Since 1973, oil imports have doubled, rising from six million barrels 
per day (BPD) to nearly 12 million BPD -- climbing to nearly 60 
percent of supply. Cars and trucks alone account for the lion's share 
of this dependency, about 8 million BPD. Last year the nation paid 
$106 billion for imported oil -- that works out to about $200,000 
leaving the country every minute. Since the '70s, America has sent 
more than one trillion dollars to oil exporting countries -- money 
that might have gone to new American businesses and new jobs.

Inefficient cars and trucks not only waste energy, they burn up 
dollars and economic opportunity. CEOs in the Fortune 500 and 
elsewhere ought to take note of this Detroit-based hemorrhaging of 
capital, as it is a drag on productivity and also cuts the 
availability of start-up capital. American consumers also spend about 
$190 billion annually on gasoline, an amount if cut by even 10 
percent through improved fuel economy, could free up a tidy sum of 
dollars for spending or investing elsewhere. Why should autos and oil 
tie up so much money?

Next come the public health and environmental costs. According to the 
American Council for Energy Efficient Economy, the 450,000 Explorers 
sold last year, will generate more than $75 million in annual health 
costs. Over 10 years, these same 450,000 Explorers will generate 
"lifetime" health costs exceeding $750 million more than 60 million 
tons of global warming gasses. The taller, heavier and high 
center-of-gravity SUVs and pickups have also resulted in an 
escalation of average vehicle weight on the highways, making for more 
horrific accidents, raising property damage and personal injury costs 
and creating line-of-sight hazards for other drivers.

Meanwhile, American farmers and construction workers, plunking down 
their hard-earned dollars for 14 to 16 mpg Ford F-Series pickups, 
Dodge Rams and Chevy Silverados are being taken for a ride, buying 
20-year-old technology while rewarding Detroit for its lack of 

Rather than being the mythic engine of America's economy and its 
technical beacon, Detroit instead is turning out product that drags 
down national economic performance one mile at a time. The historical 
record, in fact, is full of Big Three technological neglect and 
foot-dragging -- from turning up its nose at more efficient European 
front-wheel drive and fuel-injection technologies in the '50s and 
'60s, to watching the Japanese take market share though the '80s with 
overhead cams and multivalve engines. Now Detroit lags behind once 
again as the Japanese have a five-year lead with hybrid cars. What is 
worrisome, however, is that the Japanese, and now the Koreans, seeing 
that Congress and successive administrations have done little of 
consequence on fuel economy, have followed Detroit into 
SUV/light-truck land. As a result, America, and much of the world, 
will be in a deep energy and global warming hole for many years to 

Congress would do well not to be fooled by George Bush's hydrogen car 
pie-in-the-sky rhetoric. Raising national fuel economy standards to 
the 40- to 50-mpg level for all cars, SUVs, and light trucks ought be 
the goal -- in five years, not 10 -- especially with hybrid 
technologies here now. Tough fuel economy standards ought to be the 
floor from which all new automotive technology builds -- whether 
hybrid, fuel cell, or conventional vehicle. The only language Detroit 
understands is the force of law. Anything less will cost the nation 
dearly in continued capital outflow, lost technological leadership, 
further pollution and damaged stature abroad.

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