By: Brian Bohnert
After double checking to make sure the cameras were turned on and the hearing was being broadcast to a nationwide audience, the members of the House financial services committee proceeded to engage in a timeless congressional tradition: grandstanding. “How many of you took private jets here?” one asked, “how many of you are thinking about putting them on Ebay?” quipped another, “couldn’t you all have downgraded to first class or jet pooled or something to get here?” smirked a third. As other members gleefully piled on, the CEOs of the three major automakers sat sullen, like petulant children who had gotten caught being naughty. Relive your childhood “I’m really disappointed in you, son” lecture here:
Like the obnoxious guy at the party that tells the same stupid joke because he knows it always gets a good laugh, each and every member had some comment about the private jets throughout the hearing. Predictably, the evening news and late night talk shows picked up the easy sound bites and the “cooler talk” the next day centered around the general douchebaggery of the rich CEOs and then moved on to the more pressing news that Brittany Spears was making a comeback appearance at the AMAs. While Congress certainly did a good job in pointing out the symbolic mistake, they missed a golden oppotunity to address the real problem with American automakers: their cars.
While some have blamed the unions and others have blamed the fiancial meltdown, analysts need to look no further than the 8 mile/gallon mobile overcompensation machine known as the Hummer. While the rest of the world was making the shift to more fuel efficient cars, American manufacturers stubbornly continued to stamp out the gas guzzlers that would lead to their eventual demise. After visiting Germany in the summer of 2006, I was struck at how small the cars on the streets were and how few SUVs clogged the highways. Even the trucks that were used for delivery or construction were much smaller then Ford’s Excursion or Chevy’s enormous pickups. The tiny Smart Car was a regular occurrence and people did not endure the juvenile ridicule of poltical rivals if they drove a hybrid.
When I came back state side, I was keenly aware of how large the vehicles around me were – and how many of these vehicles carried around one person at a time. When I turned on the TV, Jeep was advertising the new Cherokee SR8, the least fuel efficient jeep ever produced (but hey it had a Hemi and makes alot of noise guys…SWEET!), while Toyota was rolling the Prius off the assembly line. GM’s solution to the highest gas prices in a decade? “We’ll buy your gas for a year!!!” American consumers were never asked to change their behavior and the automakers fought congressional efforts to make fuel standards stricter.
Furthermore, the old men at Ford continue to scratch their balding heads and wonder why young people don’t buy their cars. Market research makes it pretty clear that young people are more image conscience than most yet Ford has the same logo that they had WHEN THE MODEL T CAME OUT!!! Toyota? they invent an entirely new brand (Scion) to market exclussivly to the young, hip, loud music set with great success. While a logo does not make or break a car, its a symbol of the lack of innovative thought that American companies need to stay compettive. Couple that with the fact that American cars are less reliable and have more recalls than foreign cars and you get 3 CEOs begging for cash to bail them out.
So what now? When he is not pandering for votes in Michigan, Mitt Romney tells Detroit to take a hike while other Republicans refuse to support a detroit bail out. The results of this would be catastrophic according to some analysts who predict the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs by the time you factor in part suppliers and retailers. Obama is a bit more pragmatic at this point and has sent a message to Detroit that they need to make changes that should have been made years ago. So this week, the CEOs stocked up on beef jerkey, made a sweet mix tape and roadtripped back to DC – this time trading in the private jets and rolling into town driving Hybrids.
While there is still hope for American autos (at least according to this guy) there needs to be fundamental changes in the way we look at driving and the type of fuel standards that we demand from the cars we buy. American car companies need to ditch the SUV or make them more fuel efficient. They need to innovate and stay current with style trends to attract new buyers. They need to hire the best and the brightest to live in a green economy and yes, they may even have to get rid of the private jets and lavish salaries for their CEOs. That being said, I’m still going to buy a Subaru.