Long before I ever heard about personal computers, I was a huge fan of automobile design. When I was a kid, my room was jammed with miniature model cars I spent hours assembling, painting, and proudly putting on display.
So it was that my first real car was a second-hand Pontiac that could roar from 0 to 60 in no time flat. It got a whopping 7 miles to the gallon, but since gasoline cost around 75 cents a gallon (as my addled memory recalls), I hit the road as much as possible.
But as they say, that was then and this is now.
When I lived in New York City, I had little use for a car. (There's this thing back east called "mass transportation.") All that changed after moving to California, land of wide open highways and a train system worthy of your garden variety Third World basket case.) Over the years I had tracked the change in design trends and knew that SUVs and big muscle trucks were the rage. It wasn't until I began driving around every day in my Honda Civic that it hit home. Good green zealot that I was, I made a point of scowling at other drivers whenever a gas guzzler pulled up next to me. Needless to say, over the last decade, I've done a lot of scowling.
So let me confess that yes, I was quite pleased to see the price of oil shoot through the roof. In fact, I was even ecstatic to read reports of pain at the pump. The hell with my fellow citizen. The more expensive it cost to fill up, the happier I was. If wussy appeals to our common fellowship failed to do the trick, maybe, just maybe, a poke in their pocketbooks would convince the SUV crowd to mend its ways.
Of course, I was blaming the wrong party. People drive what car makers serve up. If the U.S. was turning into Hummer Nation, it was because of benighted technology design decisions made by clueless auto execs. They had gorged on fat margins from the manufacture of big vehicles at the expense of doing the environmentally right thing.
Earlier this summer, General Motors reversed its years-old dependence on trucks and big vehicles, committing to build an electric car in 2010. (Click here for an interview CNET News did with Wagoner about car technology and fuel efficiency.)
Unfortunately for GM and the rest of the Big Three, the chickens have come home to roost. GM and Ford continue to bleed big losses and there's concern the U.S. auto industry may not survive without federal intervention. Chrysler's not doing much better, looking for a buyer after talks with GM ended.
In the meantime, though, you have to wonder what they're smoking in Detroit. Take Ford, which introduced a 3-ton, 16-miles-per-gallon pickup called the F-150. Wasn't it less than a month ago that the Big Three had convinced Congress to agree to extend cheap loans--ostensibly to help them retrofit their plants to enable the production of more fuel-efficient vehicles?
And don't get carried away by the recent swoon in crude oil. Yes, prices have dropped from around $140 a barrel to the $60 level. However, that's more due to the (increasingly global) recession than to any structural changes. What's more, this is an impermanent state of affairs, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency warning that prices could hit $200 a barrel by 2030.
Maybe the Obama administration will conclude that it is in the national interest to bail out the nation's automakers. I'd hate to see one more American lose their job. But before sending another dime, let's at least agree that making more gasoline-swilling mega-vehicles will return Detroit to the brink.