Noise, Vi­bra­tion & Harsh­ness

Automobile - - Contents - By Jamie Kit­man

The long game of emis­sions and fuel ef­fi­ciency re­mains at odds with the quar­terly rev­enue cy­cle.

YOU COULD WRITE a book filled with all the things some­one might rea­son­ably think, say, or splut­ter about Ford’s re­cent de­ci­sion to largely aban­don the North Amer­i­can pas­sen­ger car mar­ket. In late April, Ford’s new CEO, Jim Hack­ett, in­formed the fi­nan­cial com­mu­nity that, come 2020, al­most 90 per­cent of Ford’s North Amer­i­can port­fo­lio will con­sist of trucks and util­ity and com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles. There is room here to touch on only a few con­cerns this devel­op­ment rains down upon us. Farewell Fu­sion, Fo­cus, Fi­esta, and Taurus, hello things taller, wider, and most likely heav­ier.

How did this hap­pen, and why? Cheap gas is the ob­vi­ous cul­prit—like magic, it made thirsty ve­hi­cles plau­si­ble again, and for many car­mak­ers, this makes Amer­ica great again. They can get back to sell­ing big­ger trucks, SUVs, and crossovers, which are more prof­itable en­deav­ors. But we know how this roller-coaster ride winds up.

Congress would have been wise to tax gaso­line more heav­ily when gas was cheap—to lock in the na­tional move to­ward more fuel-ef­fi­cient ve­hi­cles that was pick­ing up steam as Amer­ica came out of re­ces­sion. But Congress didn’t con­sider it for a minute, and au­tomak­ers pre­ferred sell­ing SUVs as they had for decades be­fore briefly re­nounc­ing them. Then, as now, they charged more for SUVs and crossovers, which cost them very lit­tle if any more to make than or­di­nary cars.

Hard to re­call, but gas mileage im­prove­ments were hap­pen­ing in this coun­try. Then, af­ter years of cheap gas, the na­tional fuel econ­omy stopped im­prov­ing in 2017. This is what govern­ment and in­dus­try and much of the cit­i­zenry said we weren’t go­ing to do again. Think back to 2008-09 and how dif­fer­ent the mood was when fed­eral bailouts for GM and FCA and a $5.9 bil­lion loan to Ford from the U.S. Depart­ment of Energy spawned a gen­er­a­tion of more fuel-ef­fi­cient pow­er­trains. Ford and others apol­o­gized for their en­vi­ron­men­tal profli­gacy, ac­knowl­edg­ing their own roles in their fi­nan­cial trou­bles and the lack of fuel-ef­fi­cient ve­hi­cles they had to of­fer in times of high gas prices. They tes­ti­fied there was noth­ing they wanted to do more than get away from over-re­liance on SUV prof­its, to build a new gen­er­a­tion of sedans and pas­sen­ger ve­hi­cles while get­ting a big leg up on this elec­tric car thing.

To­day we un­der­stand this po­si­tion as an aber­ra­tion or bout of tem­po­rary in­san­ity, a mo­men­tary de­tour from their long-term strat­egy for Amer­ica, which is to make more money short-term sell­ing as many of the big­gest cars as they can get away with. The prospect of an im­mi­nent au­ton­o­mous, ride-shar­ing, sales-col­lapse fu­ture has them run­ning scared to­day, con­vinced they need to bank cash while they can. Like the rest of us, Detroit won­ders how soon the gravy train is go­ing to dry up. Ford Pres­i­dent of Global Mar­kets Jim Far­ley bur­nished Hack­ett’s 90 per­cent not-cars prom­ise to in­vestors by al­low­ing that the com­pany was also eager to build more “au­then­tic off-road­ers.” This de­spite al­most no one ever go­ing off-road.

This brings us to the ques­tion of the deeply psy­cho­log­i­cal place high-rid­ing SUVs, trucks, and crossovers oc­cupy in the hu­man psy­che. Many peo­ple like them. But it isn’t like au­tomak­ers haven’t been try­ing their hard­est to sell them, ei­ther, mar­ket­ing and talk­ing up the jacked-up life­style to the cu­mu­la­tive tune of tens of bil­lions. When the in­dus­try says the cus­tomer de­cides where the mar­ket goes, that’s not the whole truth.

In ad­di­tion, there was an­other el­e­ment to Ford’s de­ci­sion to ad­min­is­ter eu­thana­sia to its fam­ily sedan lines in its 115th year.

Just two years ago, Ford boasted it had been named In­ter­brand’s best global green brand. But some­thing hap­pened on the way to the love-in:

CHEAP GAS IS THE OB­VI­OUS CUL­PRIT— LIKE MAGIC, IT MADE THIRSTY VE­HI­CLES PLAU­SI­BLE AGAIN,

AND FOR MANY CAR­MAK­ERS, THIS MAKES AMER­ICA

GREAT AGAIN.

Ford and the rest of the in­dus­try bumped into Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who cre­ated a safe space for the bigly reg­u­lated to get back in touch with their big­gest, bad­dest selves. Along with other man­u­fac­tur­ers, Ford lob­bied the newly re­cep­tive govern­ment of a rule-burner-in-chief to over­turn the up­graded (but still im­per­fect) Obama-era CAFE and emis­sions stan­dards for 2025, which they glee­fully did. The in­dus­try, which had agreed to the rules un­der much hum­bled cir­cum­stances, went back on its word. Although it was on tar­get to meet tougher stan­dards, it saw junkie day­light and a path back to its old, dan­ger­ous habits. Like many an ad­dict be­fore it, it went right back in.

To­day Ford prom­ises to take fur­ther ad­van­tage of a sit­u­a­tion it was al­ready tak­ing lib­eral ad­van­tage of by sell­ing even more trucks and crossovers with big foot­prints, which en­ti­tle them, un­der the rules (thanks, Obama!), to get lousier fuel econ­omy and emit more than smaller ve­hi­cles. This was the poi­son pill planted in the 2009 reg­u­la­tions. Ford is not alone. GM sold Opel, its most con­vinc­ing cen­ter of small car ex­cel­lence, last year. So too FCA, which shut­tered the Dart and Chrysler 200 pro­duc­tion lines. Trucks and crossovers are set to take these al­most-brand-new cars’ place, with the com­pany’s com­pact and mid­size pas­sen­ger car lines for­ever cast into space.

Bail­ing on cars and fail­ing to al­lo­cate ad­e­quate devel­op­ment money to carry these ma­chines through their life cy­cles with dig­nity, all three of Amer­ica’s her­itage car­mak­ers have walked away from what had once been their lifeblood and—even in their dark­est days—a big part of who they were.

In­stead, we have Ford’s new boss telling an­a­lysts, “We’re go­ing to feed the healthy parts of our busi­ness and deal de­ci­sively with the parts that de­stroy value.” Imag­ine that: the great Amer­i­can fam­ily sedan now a value destroyer in the eyes of Amer­ica’s old­est car com­pany. Ousted Ford CEO Mark Fields was mak­ing all the mod­ern noises and many of the new­fan­gled in­vest­ments the mar­ket in­di­cated it wanted in the face of the fu­turescape that ex­cites it so much. But it made no dif­fer­ence to Ford’s share prices. Last May, Fields was canned, and Hack­ett was in. But Hack­ett’s big idea—big spend­ing cuts, in­clud­ing sav­ings from the pas­sen­ger car trap­door, to­tal­ing $25 bil­lion—hasn’t moved the mar­ket, ei­ther. Nor has a planned $11 bil­lion spend on elec­tric cars.

Mean­while, it’s as if Ford con­vinced it­self it couldn’t make money off sedans, hatch­backs, or wag­ons. This is the fight Ford lost in the ’70s, came back to in the ’80s with the Taurus, gave up again in the ’90s, then came back to fight harder once more with fine cars like the Fu­sion and Fo­cus. But now Ford is quit­ting cars en­tirely (ex­cept for the Mus­tang and a rugged Fo­cus variant). The We Can Do Every­thing swag­ger the Amer­i­can car in­dus­try per­son­i­fied for a cen­tury is truly gone. In its place, the fat man who can’t be both­ered to bend over to pick up a dol­lar bill from the side­walk be­cause he’s wor­ried about his health. AM

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