The Washington Auto Show Goes Green

An opportunity for show, tell ... and sell.

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 2009; Page

It began 88 years ago as the moral equivalent of an annual tent sale for regional car dealers. Today, it is a major platform used by the global automobile industry to lobby the political and regulatory leadership of the world's most lucrative car market. It is the Washington Auto Show, the 67th staging of which takes place this week, Feb. 4-8.

For car companies, especially domestic automobile manufacturers, this year's show is critical. Two of the three largest are in trouble, hanging onto their corporate lives via billions of dollars in financial transfusions from the U.S. Treasury.

A new political sheriff, President Barack Obama, is in town. The historical news is that his skin is black. But what's more important to the car companies is that, when it comes to fuel conservation and emissions controls, his thinking is determinedly green. And he already is putting pressure on the car companies to accelerate the clean-up of their act.

Obama wants America's motor mavens to prove that their companies are viable, sustainable. He wants them to show they understand that oil is not a forever thing, and that the people who live in a motorized America cannot go on ad infinitum breathing air heavy with the waste of burned and exhausted fossil fuels.

For the car companies, it's put-up or shut-up-and-go-bankrupt time -- a time that gives Washington's local show national and even global significance. Perhaps, for that reason, the show's sponsor, the Washington Area New Automobile Dealer's Association, can be forgiven for its seeming arrogance in the naming of this years edition: "The 2009 Washington Auto Show: The Automotive Seat of Power." The world's automobile manufacturers are bringing 700 new cars and trucks to this year's show, which will be held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Many vehicles on exhibit will be conventional, ready-for-market models. But many others will be concept models, designed and engineered for a cleaner, more fuel-efficient automotive future. They are the cars and trucks the automobile executives want Washington's leaders to see. It is a case of seeing is believing -- in the hope that if the nation's leaders believe in the feasibility and viability of the industry's technological future, they will be more willing to help pay for it.

It is a kind of open-space lobbying, replete with panel discussions and hardware, all in an attempt, from the industry's view, to mate lawmaking and federal regulation with what is needed to make the automobile less of a burden on the environment without diminishing its appeal to the buying public.

It is a tricky business -- one made even more so in the last year by a collapsed global economy that flattened car sales and sent automobile manufacturers worldwide scampering to their governments for financial assistance.

For U.S. automobile executives, that was an embarrassing process. They flew to Washington in separate corporate jets to appeal to Congress for $17.4-billion in emergency loans. They got roasted on Capitol Hill and in the media, and were sent packing back to Detroit.

On a subsequent trip to Washington, the Detroit executives drove and were treated with something approaching respect, if not kindness. They got their loans. Now, Detroit's car people are saying they are looking forward to using the Washington show to demonstrate the progress they are making in the development of energy efficient, clean-running vehicles.

They are not alone.

Washington is home to foreign embassies, both political and commercial. The offices of European and Asian car companies are a part of that milieu.

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