A Proactive Detroit Could Have Owned Green Market

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

You'd think Detroit would have learned a lesson back in the 1970s.

Reading the coverage of our Green Conference, one notices a host of companies -- some surprising, some not so surprising -- that have been toiling away for years on green efforts. Conspicuously absent from the list of marketers making serious green efforts are U.S. auto manufacturers. This isn't just a shame for vague "green" reasons. It's a shame for obvious business reasons -- doubly so because the writing was on the wall some 30 years ago.

It doesn't take an economic historian to remember how Japanese imports got a toehold during the last years of fuel crisis in the states.

Detroit, of course, eventually caught on, but it's not clear it learned from the experience. U.S. automakers are finally rolling out hybrids and talking about electric cars -- years after Toyota and others have established a lock on the category.

The automakers will claim that they have been exploring vehicles with alternative-fuel options. Sure, if by exploring, they mean half-heartedly researching their options every time the federal government gave them a kick in the shins ... or stumbling to get production models on the road after Japanese hybrids started gobbling up market share. (They might also point out they've engaged in other green initiatives involving their manufacturing facilities, which they have in some cases.)

Their most salient argument, of course, is that they were just giving U.S. consumers what they wanted. Those gas-guzzling SUVs weren't driving themselves out of the dealerships. And even Al Gore has been spotted riding in the back of a shiny black land yacht. Indeed, trucks and SUVs have been one of the few strong areas for General Motors and Ford in the past years. But it puts us in mind of a group of Neanderthals stumbling across one last herd of wooly mammoths and figuring, "Hey, we're going to survive after all." As Detroit feasted on the cash brought in by their SUVs, other automakers overtook it in more fuel-efficient offerings.

And before it gets overly defensive, Detroit should consider this: How much of the market would it own right now if it had brought out hybrid or electric Tahoes, Hummers and Expeditions -- as well as a fleet of small, zippy gas sippers -- three years before gas reached four bucks a gallon?
In this article:
Most Popular