The auto industry makes America’s most regulated consumer product. So the annual North American International Auto Show here has always been a nervous intersection between public and private, between green and sexy, between what Washington wants and what the public wants.
But now that Washington is part-owner of two automakers, heavily subsidizes the purchase of alternative-fuel cars, and dictates that by 2015 vehicles get 40 percent better gas mileage to fight global warming, the intersection belonged to government at this January’s show.
Less than three percent of auto sales are gas-electric hybrids, yet the “green future” dominated Cobo Convention Center. Once banished to Cobo’s basement as curiosities, the small, kit-car makers of oddball alternative-fuel three-wheelers, electric golf carts, and battery-powered meter maid vehicles were given prominent space on the main floor alongside the multi-nationals and their mainstream designs.
Mindful that Detroit’s new board members – Speaker Nancy Pelosi and fellow members of Congress – would be coming to the first show week (open only to press and pols) to inspect their investment, the NAIAS grandly dubbed the display “Electric Avenue.” The once misfits were the toast of press releases declaring them the future of automobilia. And their former cave, the Cobo basement, was transformed into a lush, forested test track where show-goers test-drove hybrids in electric silence.
Golf carts and utility vehicles, however, are not very sexy. So Korea’s CT&T (a maker of batteries, not telephones) added a new twist to the traditional female car model. CT&T dressed their lovelies, not in gowns or elegant suits, but as a sexy Catholic schoolgirl, a leather-bound temptress, and mini-skirted meter officer. If the cars of the future aren’t much to look at, the women certainly are.
Presumably Pelosi was impressed by Electric Avenue as well as the plug-in vehicles that Detroit manufacturers pushed to the fore of their exhibits. But she was less impressed by Ford, hands-down Detroit’s most successful automaker this year. Ford had the audacity to refuse government welfare and Queen Nancy was not amused.
When asked by a reporter to assess Ford’s success without begging the taxpayer, Pelosi glowered. "They have been very appropriate in recognizing their responsibility, but also recognizing what our responsibility was," she said, unable to muster a compliment for Ford’s determined effort to avoid public dependency. "They recognize the responsibility the federal government has to the auto industry. It's not about companies, it's about an industry."
So strict are Pelosi & Co.’s new federal miles per gallon rules, that many mass-volume vehicles sport a similar egg shape in order to reduce air drag and maximize fuel economy. The Ford Fiesta, Ford Focus, Chevy Aveo, Toyota FT-CH, Volkswagen CC, and so on all look like they’ve come out of the same egg carton.
In design, however, uniformity is untenable and automakers have begun to counter the egg with its kitchen opposite – the toaster. The Nissan Cube, Ford Flex, Toyota Scion xB are defiantly squared off – a sort of designer rebellion against the conformity forced on manufacturers by miles per gallon mandates.
The politicians surveyed their kingdom of eggs and toasters, and they saw that it was good. And so they decided to dictate more. In the middle of Electric Avenue, Senator Stabenow and Congressman Gary Peters, both of Michigan, held a news conference to announce an additional $3 billion in federal grants for electric and battery-powered vehicles. The grants come on top of $25 billion in loans Washington is already giving to automakers, both foreign and domestic, to upgrade U.S. plants to produce battery-powered vehicles.
One of the loan recipients is Tesla, a Silicon Valley-based manufacturer of luxury electrics for the well-to-do. Tesla received $465 million in taxpayer green to spend on the Model S, a stylish sedan affordable to the few at $58,000. Some of the unemployed Detroiters touring the show this week might wonder if this a wise investment of their tax dollars.
But the average Joes attending the second “public week” didn’t pause long at the Tesla exhibit to contemplate such questions. They ogled, gauged, and fitted the affordable, tried-and-true gas-powered sedans, minivans, and SUVs that 97 percent of the Americans still buy. Lurking in the shadows during press week, these bread-and-butter vehicles are the real cars are the real future of the auto industry. After all, these are the cars that must make a profit.