Sunday, July 24, 2005

Go Green! Go Ford!

Today's NY Times has an article titled "The Green Machine That Could Be Detroit"-- half serious op-ed, half never-gonna-happen gag. Daniel Akst, its author, argues that for Ford or GM, business-as-usual is a dead-end, and a plausible path to solvency would be reinvention as the first all-new-technology, fuel-efficient automaker.

This makeover would be half practical, half re-branding. Akst writes:

From a marketing perspective, you're in heaven. To the environmentally conscious, you sell the prospect of saving the earth even as you appeal to the class vanity of affluent customers who might otherwise never dream of buying an American car. Are there many of these people? You may be surprised. As a proxy, consider the number of National Public Radio listeners: 26 million. Your motto with this crowd is simple: "Do the right thing."

But the beauty of your venture is that it can also appeal to meat-eating S.U.V. owners. To them, you sell self-sufficiency, patriotism and the war on terror - the satisfaction of telling foreign oil producers to take their oil and drown in it. And your motto can still be "Do the right thing."

I don't see how building all-hybrid cars will help Ford or GM get out of their pension and health care commitments, or that it will magically help them design high-quality cars that people enjoy driving (unless the commitment to fuel-efficient technologies helps to attract an influx of new ideas and talent).

Akst may be right, though, in identifying much of the real battle at the high-mass end of the auto market: big diesel engines, pickup trucks. and fleet services. This isn't where the Big Three makes their biggest profit margins (that's SUVs) but it is their bread-and-butter, one of the few areas where their market share is still dominant and where a little bit of change could produce some big results.

The problem, though, just might be in convincing the American auto market -- especially its most loyal but most conservative buyers -- to trust something new and different, especially coming from the Big Three. If Ford were to shift to making inferior versions of other companies' hybrid vehicles, they'd only succeed in alienating their existing customer base. The bottom line is that to the extent that one of the Big Three is capable of making such a change (not at all self-evident) there are plausible reasons why they'd be afraid of doing so. The American autobuying public needs to be convinced, or forced even beyond two-and-a-half-dollar gas prices to recognize, that the game we've been playing is almost over. Until then, the Big Three will continue to deal our drug of choice -- big, inefficient, plush rides with an illusion of tradition and safety. We've yet to prove that we want or deserve anything else.

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