Pilgrims' Progress: GM, Ford and Chrysler's CEOs Have a Capitol Idea
On Tuesday, Detroit's top execs made another pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. The Detroit News reported that the troubled troika all arrived at Capitol Hill in fuel-efficient vehicles as a "symbolic gesture." Mulally belted across the Beltway in a Ford Escape hybrid. Wagoner wheeled up in a hybrid Saturn Aura. And LaSorda made the scene in a flex-fuel Town & Country minivan. Of course, none of these vehicles are their makers' most frugal cars. However, we can't have America's automotive aristocrats getting off their fuel-sucking private corporate jets and jumping into a run-of-the-mill Aveo, Focus or Caliber, now can we?
The hypocrisy is stunning. Lest we forget, when the Toyota Prius first whirred into view, Detroit dismissed the gas-electric hybrid vehicle as a meaningless PR stunt. And now, two out of three American automotive magnates cloak themselves in hybrid hype to convince Washington they're down with the whole hi-tech gas-saving thing. You know; now that they want some help competing on a "level playing field" with those tricky transplants. Again. Still.
Of course, this kind of running-on-empty automotive gesture is hardly restricted to Michigan's golden parachute-clad corporate con artists. No Hollywood star worth his or her Oprah confessional would dare show up at a red carpet event in a gas guzzler. They leave their multi-thousand-square-foot homes, heated pools and garaged exotics to make the scene in the latest hybrid or electric trendmobile- just in case anyone questions their environmental credentials.
Likewise, politicians. Last month, Senator Barak Obama harangued the Detroit Economic Club with a scathing condemnation of the U.S. auto industry. The Democratic Presidential hopeful accused The Big 2.8 of unconscionable foot-dragging on CAFE standards. According to the man who would be President, Detroit's "spending millions to prevent the very reform that could've saved their industry" and "spending their time investing in bigger, faster cars."
Almost as soon as Obama's anti-Detroit bombshell hit the PR newswires, hometown reporters revealed the inconvenient truth about the pol's garage, filled as it was with a Chrysler 300C. The Senator duly ditched his Hemified whip for a Ford Escape Hybrid.
No surprise there. The Missouri-made Escape Hybrid and its corporate clone (the Mercury Mariner Hybrid) are the politicos' gesturemobiles du jour. When she's not being ferried about in an armored Cadillac or Chevy Suburban, Hillary Clinton (well, actually, hubby Bill) drives a refrigerator-equipped Mariner Hybrid. John Edwards and Al Gore both keep the planet cool (warm?) with their Escape Hybrids.
At least that's what their PR folks say. One wonders how much time our democratically-elected leaders spend in these cramped hybrids in lieu of the limos, SUVs and staff cars that transport these prodigious pork barrel purveyors around town, and block the streets around Capitol Hill.
And onto those storied streets drove Rick, Alan, and Tom, trying to neuter legislation designed to force them to build more fuel-efficient vehicles, like the ones they were driving. The heads of GM, Ford and Chryslerberus know they can't stop increases in the fuel economy standards. All they can do is minimize the federal minimum so they can
keep selling more profitable gas guzzling trucks and SUVs have the time they need to engineer more fuel-efficient vehicles, like the ones they were driving.
Rick Wagoner more or less admitted that the mandatory fuel economy gig was up. The GM lifer told long-suffering GM stockholders that it was time to move on to the other bulges in the Gordian knot strangling The General. "It looks like… it's very likely there will be increases in CAFE… Let's make sure that we also fix the real problems while we're doing that."
By "real problems," Rick was alluding to his company's [self-inflicted] unsustainable cost structure and ongoing failure to maintain domestic market share- problems shared by his friends indeed.
So… bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? More specifically, what the Hell are you doing in DC when you should at home figuring out how to build products consumers want to buy at a price that makes you enough money so you can sort this out yourself?
Of course, Detroit's corporate lions prefer maintaining the status quo and jetting to Washington on someone else's dime. They're old pros at pressing the flesh at the center of an enormous bureaucracy; a bureacracy that sees nothing wrong with running-up massive debts, mortgaging their constituents' future to protect their own short term interests.
If CEOs Rick Wagoner, Alan Mulally and Tom LaSorda wanted to make an effective symbolic gesture, they should have driven from Detroit to Washington and back in an Aveo, Focus, or Caliber.
By enduring 1000 miles in those noisy, cramped, cheap cars– byproducts of their bean-counted design and engineering processes– they'd tell the world that their very best fuel-sipping products are good enough for government work. How appropriate is that?
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