America's automakers have finally sputtered into first gear.
Responding to the growing public outcry over its reckless gas-guzzling ways, the auto industry used the Detroit Auto Show this week to unveil a lineup of "coming soon to a showroom near you" hybrid vehicles -- including a number of hybrid SUVs.
The question -- though I'm willing to bet no one at the car show asked it -- is: What took them so long? After all, cars powered by a combination of gas and electricity have been around since 1905, when the Woods Motor Vehicle Co. offered a dual-powered model.
And while Detroit's sudden interest in hybrids after a near-century of neglect is certainly a step in the right direction, given the fact that many of the prototypes on display in the Motor City won't be on showroom floors for years -- if ever -- it's fair to wonder just how decisive a step it is.
It's one thing to make a big show of rolling out glittering "concept models" intended for future production -- or to promise, as GM did, to have a million hybrid vehicles for sale by 2007 "if demand is high" -- and quite another to commit the marketing resources necessary to create the high demand. Time will tell if the industry has really fallen in love with this new/old kid on the block or if the industry's embrace of hybrid technology is just a one-night stand, a here-today-gone-tomorrow defensive gambit for the P.R. cameras.
We have ample reason to question the sincerity of the industry's stated intentions. Anyone remember the Supercar, that 80 mpg marvel that was supposed to hit the road by 2004 but instead managed to eat up $1.5 billion in taxpayer money before being abandoned on the side of the highway? Or the FreedomCAR, the Bush administration's equally lame "responsible vehicle" partnership with Detroit? Both highly touted programs allowed automakers to look like they were sweating blood to improve fuel efficiency while doing everything in their power to convince consumers to buy more and more fuel-inefficient -- and hugely profitable -- SUVs.
For a good indication of Detroit's real plans, we need look no further than this week's L.A. Auto Show. (Yes, I'm a regular on the auto show circuit.) There were as many hybrid cars on display as there were rickshaws. And in full-page newspaper ads headlined "What's Up at GM?" the auto giant bragged about having "once again shattered the record for SUV sales, topping the million mark for the second consecutive year -- propelled by breakout vehicles like the one-of-a-kind Hummer H2."
The sales deck is clearly stacked in favor of Detroit's beloved behemoths, with billions being spent on SUV advertising and ever-more tempting marketing come-ons, like GM's "Zero, Zero, Zero" program, which was introduced in December and offered no-interest financing on 13 of its SUVs for up to 60 months -- very tempting in these tough times.
Of course, Washington continues to do its part by holding SUVs to lower fuel-efficiency and air-pollution standards than passenger cars. Our politicians have even refused to close a deeply misguided tax loophole that rewards buyers of extra-large -- and extra-wasteful -- SUVs with extra-large tax breaks.
Think of that: At a time when our leaders should be touting the importance of reducing our dependence on foreign oil, the people being given a financial incentive to purchase a new vehicle are those buying fuel-chugging SUVs.
"I was surprised," said Karl Wizinsky, a healthcare consultant from Michigan who just bought a giant Ford Excursion even though he admits he doesn't really need it, "that a $32,000 credit on a $47,000 purchase was available in the first year. I mean, it is a substantial credit." Yes, it is. And it's created a substantial -- and artificial -- demand.
It's the kind of lunatic public policy that makes you want to slam on your brakes and scream out your car window: How can this kind of thing happen?
The answer is as simple as it is distressing: special-interest money has once again trumped the public interest. That's why the auto industry was able to turn its back on hybrid technology for so long, and why our politicians refuse to this day to demand that the auto industry change its hydrocarbon-loving ways.
The numbers tell the story: The auto industry spent close to $37 million on lobbying in 2000. And you can bet that money wasn't spent trying to convince Congress to designate a "Windshield Wiper Appreciation Week." Although I'm sure Congress would have been glad to oblige if its deep-pocket pals in Detroit had only asked. After all, the industry has donated over $77 million to federal candidates and the political parties since the 1990 election -- with $12.5 million doled out during the 2002 election cycle.
It also doesn't hurt to have very good friends in very high places. Before becoming White House chief of staff, Andy Card was an executive at General Motors, and before that, the chief lobbyist for the Big Three automakers. And you wondered why the administration has thrown its considerable weight behind GM's efforts to overturn a California law requiring carmakers to put more energy-efficient models on the road?
Because of the corporate takeover of our democracy, Washington has remained firmly stuck in the Dark Ages of energy policy. That's why Bill Clinton came charging into office promising to raise fuel-efficiency standards to 45 miles per gallon but left without having increased it one inch per gallon. And why George W. Bush can try to score points by proposing to raise the ludicrously low SUV mileage standard by an equally ludicrous 1.5 mpg over the next four years.
It's also why the Big Three, once again, have to play catch-up with Toyota and Honda, which have been putting out hybrid cars since 1997. How ironic that if American car buyers want to do something truly patriotic, they have to buy Japanese to do it.
So Detroit has sensed -- belatedly but still ahead of the slow-coaches in Washington -- that public opinion is shifting, and has taken some baby steps toward meeting the rising demand for more socially responsible cars.
Now it's up to all of us to make sure that the pressure and the demand continue to grow. Otherwise, the auto industry will gladly underfund and underadvertise its hybrid models, allowing them to crash and burn -- yet more "proof" that American consumers don't really care about anything other than their precious SUVs.
And that would suit those gas-guzzlers in Detroit -- and those cash-nuzzlers in Washington just fine.