Thursday, December 11, 2008

Devil in the details

In a previous post I talked about the root problem for US automakers. Briefly stated it's that the American public doesn't look at them as AUTO makers but as TRUCK makers. And for many years the best selling vehicles in the United States have been............wait for it.........trucks. The Chevy Silverado/Ford F150 combo has dominated single model sales for a couple of decades. Each individually outsells even the most popular passenger cars including Camry and Accord; and by a wide margin. Both GM and Ford developed other more carlike vehicles (read SUVs) from these platforms and sold those in large numbers as well. Profits were high. Gas prices were low. Life was good. Only when gasoline reached the $4.00 per gallon level did the public hunger for these vehicles wane. It seems a bit unfair to call for Rick Wagoner's head for producing the vehicles America wanted to buy.

But Ford and GM are international corporations and while the US market is the world's largest and very profitable it is also unique. There is just not much demand for big thirsty trucks in the rest of the world. Certainly not as personal vehicles. So both manufacturers have large design teams in Europe making cars for the rest of the world. The world that somehow gets by on about half the energy per person that we do. These are cars that could be built here now and would at least stand a chance of remodeling the image of the industry giants. So what's the problem. Well uh...........government.

While European cars meet standards that are nearly identical to US standards for safety and emissions they are not EXACTLY the same. Consequently bringing a European model to the states requires a costly and lengthy certification process that really changes very little. The New York Times recently published a very informative article on this subject that I have linked here. The bottom line is that while Congress is demanding that GM become responsible for developing the consciousness of America it would do well to relax the regulatory gauntlet for existing European cars, at least on an interim basis. This would do more to insure the prompt introduction of modern, safe, green cars than any other measure. Simple, obvious, and politically feasible. Getting Americans to buy sensible green cars is another matter.

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