Thursday, January 22, 2009

[Daniel Robb, Dec.2, 2008] An Open Letter to the Big Three

After listening to the CEOs of the “Big Three” (Ford, Chrysler and GM) testify last month before the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee of the U.S. Senate, I was struck by what Jon Tester, D-Montana, said. He said (and I paraphrase) that in his experience (as a farmer in Montana) light trucks get about the same dad-gum mileage as they did thirty years ago. His tone was one of incredulity.

My experience of trucks, as a self-employed carpenter in Massachusetts, has been similar. I typically haul (in my 1994 Toyota Tacoma ½ ton 4x4 pickup) about 300 pounds of tools to jobsites all over the state. Covering these tools is a cap which weighs about 250 pounds. The truck, which has no amenities other than windows, gets about 24 miles per gallon on the highway (in two-wheel drive) if I drive the speed limit.

This vehicle does a satisfactory job for me, except that it gets pretty lousy fuel mileage. Sadly, it gets better mileage that any other small (4 cylinder) 4x4 available to me.

Now, I know a few things: 1. My first car was a 1981 (German) VW Rabbit diesel that got 50 miles to the gallon on the highway; 2. Japanese (Toyota and Isuzu) small diesel pickups were imported to this country in the 1980s – a friend had a great Toyota 4x4 diesel truck then that got 32 mpg; 3. This country figured out during World War II how to build a Liberty Ship per day and how (with the help of our allies) to defeat Germany and Japan.

If in 1981 I could buy a German car that got 50 miles to the gallon, and if in the U.S. today I can buy a German car that gets 50 mpg with low emissions, and if in the U.S. it is possible to buy a Japanese Prius hybrid that gets 55 miles to the gallon in warm weather, why then can’t I buy a decent American-made pickup that will haul my tools across the state and get thirty-five miles to the gallon, or a car that will get 50 mpg? What happened to us?

I have to believe that between the 1. Shallow requirements of U.S. auto-fashion (fashion is a huge part of the auto-industry, in terms of how Americans want to dress themselves, in SUVs, or overlarge pickups, or whatever’s the rage); 2. The encouragements of oil-industry lobbyists; and, 3. Industrial hubris, the Big Three have somehow neglected to make the truck (or car) I want to buy. And that is a problem, because I am the guy they want to sell a truck to – the small potatoes yeoman farmer/builder/citizen.

Four years ago I bought a Toyota (used) because of Toyota’s reputation for reliability and longevity. In 60,000 miles (from 160,000 to 220,000 miles) I have had a thermostat (a thirty dollar part) fail on me. That’s it. Other than typical maintenance (new belts, brake pads, and oil changes), I haven’t had a single repair.

So where’s my incentive to buy an American truck that won’t outperform my Toyota? Should I do it out of patriotism? Perhaps. But I thought we were supposed to award outstanding performance, not mediocre performance, so I’m not sure that would be patriotic, really.

What I’d like the Big Three to do is this: Build me a truck that makes sense. A truck that a barely-making-it-small-family-farmer or carpenter can feel good about. Advertise it truthfully as tough-as-nails, long-lasting, easy-to-fix – a truck that our yeoman farmer forbearers would have driven. And while you’re at it, advertise real simple value as cool, rather than the macho crap you use to sell trucks now. Build my truck with a light turbo-diesel or hybrid drivetrain, 4x4 wheel drive, and let me get thirty-five miles to the gallon on the highway. All I want is an honest to goodness truck. I know that a country that can build a Liberty Ship in a day can get there.

Nothing will help America (or her security) more that to allow guys like me to get out from under the fist of big oil. In fact, I think you can do better than 35 mpg in the truck I want. I think you can get me 40 mpg. But I’d settle for 35. In two years, because my Toyota will have close to 250,000 miles on the clock then, and it might really be time for a new vehicle.

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