The Blog

Hybrid Liberalism

The government and Detroit's Big Three are trying to change the way you look at your car.

11:00 PM, Jan 24, 2005 • By HENRY PAYNE
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"The reason we missed the boat on hybrids is we business-cased it too much," he recently told the Detroit Free Press. "We took this hard analytical look at it and said for that amount of investment to sell that quantity of vehicles where we lose money on every one is irresponsible vis-à-vis the shareholders. We failed to appreciate that Toyota basically treated it as an advertising expense. They said we need these to demonstrate our . . . concern for the environment, capture the imagination of the growing environmental movement in the U.S., and get all those East and West Coast intellectual opinion leaders, movie stars, etc. on our side, which they successfully did. So even if they lose money on it, it's cheap at twice the price."

Whether or not tax credits should be going to well-off car buyers, the hybrid subsidy is but a foot in the door of federal efforts to fundamentally alter the auto market. And, despite the blue state concentration of hybrid buyers, it is an effort that transcends party lines.

Congressman Camp, for example, is a self-described conservative Republican. He sponsored the hybrid tax break, his spokesman Eastman explains, because "Congress is saying now is the time to transition to sources that are eco-friendly and lower our dependence on foreign oil."

While the United States government has firmly rejected participation in the Kyoto Treaty limiting greenhouse gases, automakers are under tremendous pressure to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. Their business is a global one, and European and Asian governments have already moved to put caps on CO2 emissions.

Even in the United States, automakers are facing new regulations in California and Northeast states that limit greenhouse emissions through mileage standards, regulations that could fundamentally change what consumers would be allowed to buy. Add to this the very real threat of tobacco-like global warming lawsuits against automakers, and a transportation future in which the government subsidizes industry to make only "earth-friendly" vehicle looks quite plausible.

It is a future that is being actively promoted by big auto players like GM and Ford--chief advocates for Camp's tax credits not only for hybrids, but ultimately for cars powered by "renewable resources" such as hydrogen.

In a somber, almost religious, news conference held on the Detroit auto show's opening day, General Motors CEO Richard Wagoner dropped all pretense that cars are about individuality and fun. He sketched a "guilt-free driving" future where "government and industry will have to solve together" the challenges for transitioning to a hydrogen transportation system.

"This should excite you for what it means to society. Whatever motivates you--global warming or the sustainable use of resources--the hydrogen economy is coming," he said, upon introducing a the Sequel, a hydrogen-fueled concept. "This is a bold step toward the reinvention of the automobile. This is our moons hot."

And like NASA's moons hot, this ambitious government/industry re-invention of the auto won't be cheap. Obviously, its costs will dwarf those of the hybrid subsidy.

To the car enthusiasts making their annual pilgrimage to Detroit, the auto show was still a celebration of the individual transportation. But if you listened closely to the industry's executives you heard them saying that cars are increasingly seen as a threat to be harnessed for societal goals. If, as players as diverse as GM's Wagoner, Cameron Diaz, and Rep. Camp insist, the goal of automobiles is no longer to offer a good consumer product but to save the planet, who will be able to say no?

Henry Payne is a Detroit free-lance writer and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News