Auto Industry Response to Market Unprecedented

Since automotive emissions were proven to be a contributor to global warming and other pollution problems, the industry has alternated between looking the other way and rationalizing culpability while simultaneously creating engineering advances to ameliorate some of the issues.
Even the most conservative of American auto makers, as insensitive as they have seemed to be at times, have detected more responsible attitudes in the buying public and are offering a variety of solutions to the dilemma of buying a performance car or thirsty SUV while maintaining the image of a responsible citizen.
Domestic and overseas manufacturers now offer hybrid drive systems, including Ford and Cadillac hybrid SUVs and a variety of models from Lexus, Toyota and Honda. VW recently introduced its “clean diesel,” which uses bio-fuels and obtains phenomenal mileage, and GM has developed advanced fuel cell-powered prototypes.
Toyota leads the industry with the most models and best performing hybrids. Fifteen new electric car makers and virtually all existing manufacturers have announced new hybrid and diesel models, promised to be in showrooms by 2009.
In the mid-90s, Detroit produced a series of plug-in electric cars for evaluation tests by the public. These cars performed well, but the cost of converting to production of electrics frightened the masterminds in motor-city management so much they swiftly recalled and destroyed them.
However, the Far East manufacturers saw this and began designing competing products. Now, their better judgment in continuing development gives them a significant competitive edge. Imports can now meet the demands of responsible motorists better than domestics.
Fifty years ago, Ford paid market researcher Louis Cheskin a six-figure fee to tell them the public wanted an Edsel, then gave him another $100,000 to tell them why it failed. Today’s products prove the industry has marginally better methods of assessing the needs of buyers than they did then, but bean-counting management needs the grit to accept the results and fund the necessary development.
Detroit seems unable to learn from past mistakes. Unfortunately, our economy and U.S. jobs pay a price for it.
The decision is now ours to choose the most environmentally compatible vehicles in order to reward intelligent response to market needs, and to encourage auto makers to continue this response, as they have proven themselves capable, drivewise. ?′
Automobile designer Jerry Cumbus is director of Automotive Research Center, a national association of auto designers, engineers and drivers.

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