Viewpoint -- What A Gas

Dec. 21, 2004
Consumers, automakers deserve much of the blame for the high cost of fuel.

In my hometown of Cleveland, a place that gets its share of erratic and unpleasant weather, we have a saying, "If you don't like the weather here, move to (insert the name of a state with constant sunshine here.)"

I feel like saying something similar to every person I hear complaining about gas prices. "If you don't want to pay $40 to fill your gas tank, don't drive a sport utility vehicle that gets 18 miles per gallon." I propose this phrase as the universal axiom of fuel economy. Please feel free to use it the next time you hear someone who owns a gas-guzzling monster whining about the high cost of premium fuel.

Americans seem to think cheap gas is a right. Although the U.S. has the lowest gas prices in the world, and inflation-adjusted prices of gas are still quite reasonable, we still complain that the cost to fill up our tanks is too high. (I'm convinced that if President Bush would propose a constitutional amendment against $2 gas prices, he'd be re-elected in a heartbeat.) However, keeping the price of gas down through foreign or domestic policy isn't a feasible long-term solution. The answer to our fuel problems is lower consumption.

What most people still don't admit is that we -- consumers and auto manufacturers -- are largely to blame for our current gas cost predicament. As a nation, we use way too much gas. We're the ones who have embraced the SUV and other fuel-thirsty vehicles. Consumers love their SUVs because they feel like they own the road. Manufacturers love SUVs because of the profit margin. Let's face it, the high-margin SUV has been one of the few things keeping the Detroit automakers afloat for the past 15 years. I'm surprised the Motor City hasn't named a ballpark after or built a statue to its savior, the sport utility vehicle.

American consumers love big, powerful, fuel-thirsty cars. Automakers love the profits from them. For these two simple reasons, it seems unlikely that our nation will decrease its dependence on gasoline anytime in the near future. Which is too bad, because a united effort by consumers and automakers could certainly cut our consumption, make it easier on our pocketbooks and reduce the number of news reporters standing outside a local gas station giving a live report on high fuel prices like it's a major event.

A small but growing minority of automakers and consumers seem to understand this principle. Honda and Toyota were the first to produce and sell hybrid gas-and-electric autos, and they continue to develop alternative fuel technologies. Although it is several years behind the two biggest Japanese automakers, GM is in the process of bringing hybrids to market. Another positive sign is that a record number of consumers will buy hybrids this year, and there are waiting lists for several hybrid vehicles. But unfortunately hybrid cars still make up a tiny fraction of vehicles on the road. Since the majority of Americans are not likely to reduce their dependence on automobiles, and fuel cells won't be powering vehicles anytime soon, it seems that hybrids are our best chance to cut back on gas consumption and reduce the sting at the pumps.

But the sad truth is that most consumers and automakers are still dragging their feet when it comes to fuel efficiency. For example, many automakers make minor engineering changes to their vehicles to ensure that they're classified as light trucks rather than cars, since the government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards are much more lenient for light trucks. Consumer Reports suggests that Subaru raised the body of its 2005 Outback sedan by an inch and DaimlerChrysler made the rear seats in its PT Cruiser removable to help bend government fuel economy rules. But consumers are just as much to blame because we're demanding an increasing number of vehicles that are not fuel-efficient. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, light trucks make up more than 50% of new vehicle sales today, compared with just 28% less than two decades ago.

If we as consumers stopped buying so many gas-guzzling SUVs and other light trucks, and if we embraced fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles, our fuel economy as a nation would increase considerably. We'd be paying less to fill our gas tanks -- not because prices would be any lower, but because we'd be using less gas to drive the same number of miles. If the public placed a premium on fuel efficiency, automakers would rush to develop new alternative fuel technologies at a breakneck pace, which would be good for manufacturing. Burning less fuel would mean we would have cleaner air too. But most importantly, we wouldn't have to hear as many complaints about how high gas prices are.

Michael Madej is IndustryWeek's senior eMedia sales and marketing manager. He is based in Cleveland.

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