Monday, March 08, 2004

Image vs. Environment
The NY Times carried an amusing post-Academy Awards article over the weekend, contrasting the stars who drove Hummers to the Oscars against those who drove more economical and environmentally benign hybrid cars. The Toyota Prius and the Hummer represent completely opposite views of what car-buyers want, and the challenge for Detroit, Yokohama, and Stuttgart is how to weave these strands back together.

The Hummer is all about potential, and it epitomizes the dominant theme in auto design over the last ten-plus years: building cars with the potential to go faster, accelerate quicker, and carry more payload, further offroad, than the miserable cars foisted on us in the 1980s. The consumer who buys such a car wants to be going 70 mph by the end of the offramp, even if he knows he will have to jam on the brakes to avoid crashing into gridlock. She wants to be able to take the whole family and a week's gear to a base camp in the wilderness, even as she realizes her car will rarely carry more than her briefcase to the office. It is the triumph of image over practicality and economy.

The Prius represents something very different. It's a reminder that car technology has not stood still for 20 years, and that if we hadn't been so focused on adding speed, throw-weight and endless power gizmos to cars over the years, we would today have a car fleet averaging well over 30 miles per gallon and delivering reasonable comfort, safety and reliability, with all that entails for the environment and energy security.

But even if a new administration were to ramp up the minimum Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards--and close the SUV loophole in those standards--most consumers will still want it all: performance plus safety, economy plus spaciousness. How else do we explain the Hummer buyer who is dismayed to discover it gets less than 12 miles per gallon? Perhaps the new generation of hybrid SUVs currently under design will start to address this.

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