Editorial writers are fond of targeting "Detroit" as if it were a single entity producing cars and trucks, most of them of suspect quality, safety and environmental compatibility.
It is a convenient stereotype, useful in making a point, even one dulled by inaccuracy and bias.
The Washington Post editorial board -- a department separate from the newsroom that oversees the editorial and op-ed pages of the paper -- is not immune from this malady. As is often the case with the media and entertainment establishments, largely located on the East and West coasts, the paper's editorial writers have engaged in an automotive debate that often takes the form of "us against them" or "good vs. evil" or "car lovers vs. car haters."
A case in point is an editorial, "Detroit's Complacency," published in The Post on Thursday, June 3. The gist of the argument is that "Detroit" is lagging behind such companies as Japan's Toyota Motor Corp. in the production of fuel-efficient vehicles, such as Toyota's gas-electric hybrid Prius sedan.
Specifically, the editorial chides Ford Motor Co.'s plan to begin selling its Escape gas-electric sport-utility vehicle this summer, which the editorial writers called "an oddly American" approach to fuel economy, "like low-tar cigarettes or low-carb bread." And the editorial claims that "there is no question that the Japanese were there first" with the concept of gas-electric vehicles.
Among the many things brushed aside in that editorial, and others like it, is that Toyota, Nissan Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., Mazda Motor Corp., DaimlerChrysler AG, among other "foreign" car companies, are all a part of "Detroit." All of them have offices or other major facilities in or near Detroit. Most of them have production and design relationships with traditional Detroit companies, such as General Motors Corp. and Ford.
One of the supposedly non-Detroit companies, Stuttgart, Germany-based DaimlerChrysler, actually owns a piece of Detroit, formerly known as Chrysler Corp. GM and Ford, on the other hand, long have had strategic alliances with Japanese car companies such as Mazda (Ford) and Suzuki Motor Corp. (GM).
Indeed, it can be argued that GM and Ford are as European, and increasingly as Asian (given their rapidly growing investments in China), as they are "Detroit." GM owns Germany's Adam Opel AG and Sweden's Saab Automobile AB. Ford owns Britain's Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover brands and Sweden's Volvo.
GM designs and produces some cars with Toyota at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in Fremont, Calif., where the fuel-efficient, compact Pontiac Vibe (37 miles per gallon) is produced. The Vibe's mechanical and structural twin, the fuel-efficient, compact Toyota Matrix wagon (37 miles per gallon), was also co-designed with Toyota, which assembles it in Cambridge, Ontario. GM's new V-6 Saturn Vue SUV runs with a Honda-supplied engine. Honda, in turn, is relying on GM's expertise in the development of more complicated and substantially more expensive fuel-saving technology, hydrogen fuel cells.
What does that mean for gas-electrics? Simply this: The Japanese were not the inventors of gas-electric vehicles, which have been around, in one form or another, since Nov. 23, 1905, when the first recorded patent was issued for that technology. It went to American engineer H. Piper, according to extensive research on the matter done by the editors at www.autoMedia.com.
There also were alcohol-electric cars developed by the Compagnie Parisienne des Voitures Electriques (Paris Electric Car Co.) in the early 1900s. In the same time frame, Austria's Ferdinand Porsche, then a young engineer with Jacob Lohner & Co., developed a system for putting electric motors in the wheel hubs of vehicles also powered by gasoline engines. Also, around the same time, America's General Electric Co. built a hybrid vehicle with a four-cylinder gasoline engine.
In short, gas-electrics -- which are by no means the most fuel-efficient hybrids -- have many parents, many of them "Detroit"-type Americans. Of course, Toyota and Honda are to be credited with pushing that technology into marketable production in the late 1990s. But it is a factual error to assert, even in that case, that the Japanese were alone in perfecting that technology. It was a matter of cooperative development involving American and Japanese car companies.
But Toyota and Honda chose to pursue gas-electrics -- vs. the more fuel-efficient but substantially more costly diesel-electrics -- first. GM and Ford, joining much of the global auto industry in regarding hybrids as an interim technology, chose to pursue hydrogen fuel cells as the best approach to developing cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles. That proved to be a public relations and political blunder. But it hardly supports the editorial claim that "Detroit" has "hitherto shown little interest in improving fuel economy."
Largely unquestioning American media have hailed gas-electric vehicles as the ultimate fuel savers while ignoring the reality that Toyota, for example, simply is playing to the U.S. market.
While it is winning kudos in the United States for gas-electrics, for example, Toyota in Europe is pushing its advanced diesel vehicles, such as the Avensis sedan. Why? That is because fuel-saving diesel-powered vehicles, largely anathema in the United States, account for 48 percent of the European passenger vehicle market.
That brings me, an avowed member of the "car lover" camp, to the Post editorial board's implied praise of the Union of Concerned Scientists' proposed UCS Guardian XSE SUV, a purported remake of the popular Ford Explorer XLT SUV.
The Guardian XSE, using "off-the-shelf" technology (largely taken from recommendations in the National Research Council's 1992 report, "Automotive Fuel Economy: How Far Should We Go?"), is supposed to get 36 miles per gallon vs. an average of 21 mpg obtained by myriad current versions of the Explorer.
Why focus on this particular concoction? If you're in search of fuel efficiency, there are existing alternatives. I spent much of last week in San Francisco driving the mid-size Nissan X-Trail SUV, which got 35 miles per gallon in my hands -- delivering loads of torque and using relatively uncomplicated diesel technology. The X-Trail is very popular in Europe and Japan and could be headed toward U.S. showrooms soon.
The problem is that the UCS opposes the U.S. introduction of models such as the X-Trail, which the UCS calls high polluters -- despite their advanced technologies.
Meanwhile, Toyota is preparing to follow "Detroit" in its "oddly American" strategy for achieving fuel economy by introducing gas-electric versions of two of its SUVs, the Toyota Highlander and Lexus RX 330 (to be called the RX 330H). I guess that means even laggards can set an example for leaders when there is a profit to be made.