Surviving the Eco-Friendly Auto Show

The chattering classes -- along with millions of enraged Americans -- love to complain. (Don't we all?) And when they're not lining up with pitchforks and torches outside of AIG's corporate offices, their next favorite target seems to be Detroit and the Evil Empire of Automobile Manufacturers.

Anger over taxpayer dollars going into corporate coffers is understandable, but I find myself more put off by the perception that the Big Three are failing in their duties to provide us with economical, gas-saving, environmentally friendly vehicles to save not only our wallets, but the biosphere and civilization itself.

That pattern seems to be holding true at this year's New York International Auto Show, where the Gray Lady is reporting that attendees have been heckling the models/presenters who are demonstrating the new automobiles. Some, it seems, are dissatisfied with Detroit's efforts to bring out fuel-efficient, next generation vehicles, while others are simply deranged.

Donald Han, an accountant from Queens, sounded unmoved. "Why now?" he asked the woman, rather curtly, once she had finished her patter. "How come you've got to nearly go bankrupt before you come out with a car like this?"

One GM presenter said a woman told her the company was responsible for the death of American soldiers in Iraq. The logic went like this: if G.M. made more fuel-efficient cars, the country would not need so much oil, and if the country did not need oil, United States troops would never have invaded.

One of the really unfortunate parts of this story is that most of the beautiful young ladies demonstrating the cars are not exactly involved in the management decisions of GM or Chrysler. In fact, most are part-time temps looking to pick up some extra work and reciting prepared scripts about the products.

I was in Manhattan for the media preview of the auto show last week and focused most of my time on issues specific to fuel economy and alternate energy vehicles. As part of this, I conducted an extensive interview with Charles Territo, senior director of communications for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. (In terms of full disclosure, I was invited to attend the show by AAM, who paid transportation and accommodation costs for the trip. They did not pay a fee or place any restrictions on what, if anything, I published from the event. You can read the first part of the interview here.)

One of our main discussion points on this particular topic was the willingness -- or lack thereof -- on the part of American consumers to inconvenience themselves in the cause of environmental awareness and reduced dependency on fossil fuels. "We seem to have found where the breaking point is on that," he informed me. "When gas is at two dollars, three dollars, people aren't paying attention. When it gets up near the four dollar range, everyone wants a fuel efficient vehicle."

The practical upshot of this is that we, as consumers, can be a fickle bunch. Unfortunately, Detroit is in the business of selling cars that people will actually buy. Mr. Territo reminded me that consumer demand can switch up on a dime, but for the Big Three to completely retool their production line is more akin to changing course and speed on an aircraft carrier. Some of the hybrids currently on display as concept cars started out on the drawing board as much as ten years ago. When gas is cheap, people want sport utility vehicles and powerful engines. If the price shoots up the following fall, it's not terribly productive to scream at Detroit for failing to have the hybrid of your dreams ready on the showroom floor the following day.

There were other educational opportunities at the show which spoke to consumer participation in these challenges. It turns out that most of us could already be saving quite a bit of gas -- thereby preserving the habitat of the salt-marsh harvest mouse a bit longer --  with the cars that we're driving today. I went along on a ride with another blogger to learn the ins and outs of what is being called "eco-driving" and it was an eye opening experience in more ways than one.

We went to meet the instructor who turned out to be a lovely and charming woman by the name of Stephanie Reaves. Ms. Reaves is a professional race car driver, stunt woman, and actress who has worked with the Petty team on the NASCAR circuit and confesses to having piloted vehicles well in excess of 200 mph (under strictly legal conditions, of course). Thus, I found it somewhat odd that she was there at the show instructing people on ways to conserve gas while driving, but it turned out she had a lot to teach us.

With the other blogger behind the wheel as I shot some video from the back seat, I found myself in the enviable position of being chauffeured around Manhattan by two beautiful women.  After Stephanie instructed our driver to head out in traffic using her normal driving techniques, however, the mood in the car changed distinctly. She threw herself into the task like a native New Yorker, charging into openings in the downtown traffic and at one point nearly rear-ending another vehicle which pulled up short. I tried to focus more on the efficiency information being provided than my prospects of surviving until dinner.

The car was outfitted with a computer which monitored all trip data, including a running measurement of the gas mileage we were getting. After finishing the course once, the display informed us that we had managed a fairly impressive 28.5 mpg.  We were then instructed to travel the same course again, this time concentrating on certain fuel saving techniques. These included gradually easing up to speed, coasting when traffic was slowing or stopped ahead, and generally looking out for opportunities to avoid stopping and starting.  Our second run wound up hitting more traffic and sitting in gridlock longer than the original tour, but still delivered a rating of 34 mpg before we were completely shut down in midtown traffic for ten minutes.

As I reflected on the experience later, I reached one conclusion which now seems obvious. Consumers want to be inconvenienced as little as possible and have solutions for saving both money and the environment handed to them on a silver platter or legislated out of thin air. But when it comes to things they can do themselves, or if a painful motivation isn't in place to push them, resolve becomes scarce.

Detroit is already able to deliver cars which do at least some of the things we're demanding, but if the wolves aren't at the door, people aren't buying them. It's far easier to drive like an extra from Gone in Sixty Seconds, while blaming the auto industry for our problems, and demand that Congress fix everything for us. As with most things in life, the real picture is far more complicated, and there's plenty of blame to go around.