Friday, June 10, 2005

Thank God for the Japs

Thank God for the Japs.

U.S. auto manufacturers still seem unable to come to grips with the needs of the times, but the Japanese keep rolling right along. Somebody needs to.

General Motors announced a few days ago that it would be laying off 25,000 workers in a restructuring effort aimed at stemming its massive losses of over a billion dollars per year. And GM isn't the only one in trouble. Both GM and Ford recently had their bond ratings downgraded to junk status.

None of the traditional "big three" auto makers inspires. It seems all they know how to do is build a bigger SUV, and with fuel prices on the rise, that's not a winning strategy.

On the other hand, the Japanese have been turning out marvels of quality and economy for decades. My '92 Honda Civic, purchased new for a mere $11,700 (and that includes an overpriced $900 CD player) is still going strong at 430,000 miles. True, it did blow a head gasket at 407,000 miles, but before that it had no engine work whatsoever save for routine maintenance. The mechanic, peering into the engine while the head was off, said the cylinder walls showed no signs of wear. This peppy little car continues to get 40 miles to the gallon.

Over the past few years both Toyota and Honda have been cranking out high quality hybrid cars that have gained rapid acceptance and a devoted following in the marketplace. These amazing little feats of engineering have hit the ground running and have performed remarkably well for such a new technology. Ford is a Johnny-come-lately with its Escape hybrid.

Now comes a review in the New York Times of Honda's FCX, a still experimental but honest-to-god hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Honda loaned it to the Times reviewer for a week, and he put a few hundred real-world miles on it. Sure, Detroit is working on hydrogen vehicles as well, but why is it that the Japanese are always at the forefront of whatever good is occurring in automotive technology?

And why is it that the U.S. automakers are failing while the Japanese continue to excel? I don't know. But it strikes me that Detroit exemplifies the same kind of "can't do" attitude that I see at the highest levels of U.S. government: refusal to change, an approach to energy planted firmly in the past, head planted firmly in the sand, and little vision or enthusiasm about what can and must be done. Thank God for the Japs.

Copyright (C) 2005 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved


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