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Marginal: I Say It's Spinach

As Irving Berlin wrote, "Long as the best things in life are free/I say it's spinach and the hell with it." Unfortunately, when it comes to petroleum, it's anything but.

One of the real problems of the industry is that there must be a shift in priorities from horsepower to fuel efficiency, from 0 to 60 times to 60 mpgs, and there just doesn't seem to be the drive to get this done in as fast and as efficient a manner as necessary-assuming, of course, that the domestic OEMs want to sell large quantities products in the not-too-distant future.

One of the real problems of the industry is that there must be a shift in priorities from horsepower to fuel efficiency, from 0 to 60 times to 60 mpgs, and there just doesn't seem to be the drive to get this done in as fast and as efficient a manner as necessary-assuming, of course, that the domestic OEMs want to sell large quantities products in the not-too-distant future. Don't get me wrong: I like an exhilarating drive as much as the next guy (and let's face it, with few exceptions, it tends to be guys). But with gasoline at $3.00 and probably going to $4.00 in short order, alternatives aren't just something to be "working on," but selling. Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman, apparently stated that global warming was a "total crock of," um, well, it wasn't ethanol. To his credit, I suppose, he held forth on the GM FastLane blog (http://fastlane.gmblogs.com/archives/2008/02/talk_about_a_cr.html) about how GM is busy working to take the automobile out of the environmental debate. Presumably there are some pretty smart people over at GM who don't merely think that getting out of the debate is worth the millions upon millions of dollars that they're investing in alternative powertrain systems. Presumably they think that there are compelling environmental considerations. Even the U.S. EPA states: “Scientists know with virtual certainty that...The atmospheric buildup of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is largely the result of human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels." And that outfit isn't full of Sierra Club members. A problem is that Bob Lutz is a tremendously charming and persuasive individual. And if he thinks that global warming is a bunch of, um, spinach, and if Bob Lutz is your boss, then you're probably going to think that it is a bunch of...He argues that actions (e.g., leading the Volt project) should speak louder than his words, but isn't it conceivable that people might be a little more driven to excel if they thought that their boss really believed in what they were doing?

Then there's the other leg of the stool: Ford. Actually, this is sort of a Hound of the Baskervilles situation: the silence is notable from the Blue Oval, especially in light of the chairman's earlier comments about the commitment to the environment. Ford seems more enchanted with its Microsoft Sync partnership than green. There is a new F-150 coming this year. Eventually we will be getting the Ford Fiesta-but it is worth noting that unlike the F-150, the Fiesta is being engineered in Europe, a place where people drive small cars because it is expensive to drive anything else. Wait a minute-isn't it becoming increasingly expensive over here, too? Oh, ignore that. Just push that Sync button and play another tune. "Global engineering" is nice, unless you happen to live in the U.S., it seems.

Meanwhile, over at Chrysler, there is a quote from Jim Press, who was quoted in the Detroit Free Press saying, "The auto market is like dinner. You got to have your meat and potatoes, which is your volume vehicles. You've got dessert, like the Challenger, and your vegetables are your alternative fuel or hybrid vehicles." He's the guy who went to Chrysler from Toyota, remember? You know, the company with all of those hybrids? Now it seems that hybrids are nothing but spinach with Press at Chrysler. Admittedly, Toyota has recently rolled out with back-to-back behemoths, the new Land Cruiser and the Lexus LX 570. These are Big. No question. And while they may be a bit more fuel efficient that their predecessors, let's not kid anyone: they are thirsty. But the word from Toyota, as well as from the aforementioned companies, is that there are families that need these big SUVs. Really? I checked out the U.S. Census Bureau's stats for the size of households from 1960 to 2006. And back in 1960, when it was suitable to have a station wagon to bring along the brood, the number of persons per household was 3.33. In 2006-and as was the case in '05, '04, and '03-the number was 2.57. Partial people notwithstanding, the numbers indicate that families are actually smaller than they were in previous years (the last time the household number was about 3 was in 1972), so I wonder about the numerous Walton-like clans that seem to be in need of SUVs. And if it is about people hauling, aren't minivans far more efficient? As for giant boats: marine fuel prices are no bargain, either.

Whether there is global warming or not, whether there are finite quantities of petroleum or not, in point of fact there is an increased sensitivity vehicular efficiency-and a decreased interest in the U.S. for the large SUVs and pickups that have been a mainstay of Detroit. Unless the domestic industry finds the ways and means to cost-effectively and efficiently produce a greater number of fuel-efficient vehicles, sooner rather than later, then, well, it's spinach for them. 

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