The Washington Times - June 12, 2008, 01:46PM


History might not be repeating itself


Back in 1973 when the first oil embargo caused everything from gas rationing to long, long lines at the pump, the American public was confronted with its second-ever (the first was WWII gas rationing) realization that we were totally dependent on resources owned by someone else. OPEC had most of the oil and they made it clear that we would forever pay and pay, and pay.

In 1973, and again in 1979, there were futile attempts by the domestic auto manufacturers to react to the “new age” of limited energy resources and unpredictable prices. There wasn’t much they could do, however, since for decades the entire industry had invested in big, inefficient engines and large cars to put them in. There were very few research programs aimed at more fuel-efficient drivetrains, alternative fuels and other ways to meet the new demands, so manufacturers responded with hastily-designed, smaller cars and even more hastily-designed diesel engines. The only other types of engines under study were rotary and turbine, both of which consumed more fuel and produced more emissions.

Detroit’s two main responses proved to be an industry nightmare. The buying public rapidly got fed up with rust-prone, underpowered pieces of junk like the Cavalier, Vega, Volare, Pinto and Fairmont. Oldsmobile and Cadillac owners who bought diesel versions found that they [literally] couldn’t give them away in the used car market. Meanwhile, Japanese and European manufacturers quickly “federalized” their models and shipped them over here to enthusiastic buyers.

By the early 80s the fuel crisis was over - or so we thought - and the domestic manufacturers went back to business-as-usual while trying to adjust to the loss of market share to the foreign companies. Abundant, cheap fuel allowed the influx of highly profitable SUVs and luxury vehicles. Nobody paid attention to years of flawed U.S. domestic and international policies until deregulation caused one financial collapse after another and the bumbling current administration helped precipitate the current, unprecedented global oil crisis.

Granted, the auto industry has reaped massive profits from sales of inefficient, vehicular dinosaurs such as SUVs and luxury-trucks, but don’t blame them for foisting those machines on the public. No one, no one, in the auto industry foresaw the advent of the SUV. All anyone at the factories did was to react to a market that developed itself, so the blame goes to the American public - or 49% of them, anyway. Before you point fingers at GM, Ford or Chrysler, think about Land Rover, Toyota, Nissan, Honda and every other manufacturer except Jaguar and the Italian exotics. They all joined the party and are madly trying to downsize their products.

While it’s easy to say history is repeating itself, at least when it comes to the auto industry, this might not be the case. The difference this time is that all the manufacturers have been working for years on a host of other technologies to address what they know will be a limited, expensive, fuel supply. Combustion technology research has resulted in the cleanest, most fuel-efficient gasoline engines ever, thanks to computer control, metallurgy and advances in fuel injection. Hybrids have become mainstream vehicles and plug-in versions are coming into the market this year, allowing many users the ability to commute all week at low speeds (less than 35 mph) on the electric motors alone, for about 80 cents worth of electricity a night. Ethanol, diesel, bio-diesel and synthetic fuels will fill little niches and ultimately we’ll find a competitive way to produce hydrogen on a large scale to supply future fuel cell vehicles.

For the present the manufacturers are counting on crossover SUV’s (based on car platforms) to satisfy the demand for larger vehicles, but everyone knows that the market is shifting towards regular passenger cars, micro-cars and other extremely efficient vehicles like mopeds and scooters. Public transportation in every city is experiencing unprecedented ridership and carpools are once again popular.

All of this belt-tightening will hurt for a little while and nearly everyone is going to change their lifestyle to some extent, but I think we’ll all be better off in the long run.