Detroit, Mich. - A final note on Tom Friedman’s “Fix the Flat” column in the Wednesday Times.
While Friedman and his Democratic Washington allies call for tying a Detroit bailout to ramping up production of fuel-efficient vehicles, Friedman at least advocates setting a market price signal (political suicide for the pols). The Times columnist has consistently called for a federal tax hike to permanently place U.S. gas prices in the Japan-like stratosphere (pump prices in Japan are 60 percent higher than our own. European prices more than double). For Washington Democrats to pretend that there will be a hybrid revolution in the U.S. with prices at $2 a gallon is folly.
Consider Toyota’s Prius hybrid – a car that Obama cites as an example for U.S. industry to follow.
America’s Prius fashonistas may be surprised to learn that the car was developed for the Japanese market — not for the U.S. – in 1997 as a fuel-efficient response to the island nation’s high fuel costs. Interestingly, Japan — like the U.S. – has a cultural aversion to diesel engines which have proved a winning answer for European consumers and their $8-a-gallon petrol.
Detroit News reporter Christine Tierney, who covers the international auto industry, tells me that the Japanese share U.S. memories of previous-generation, sooty diesels – a particular concern in Japan’s densely-crowded metro areas.
So Toyota engineers concentrated their R&D (without GM’s massive union-cost overhead, they could afford to invest in marginally profitable alternatives) on battery technology and developed the Prius.
It was only moderately successful in Japan, where it was far pricier than a sea of other fuel-efficient models, when the company decided to export it to the U.S. and our diesel-averse customers. To the surprise of the company, it became a cult hit with America’s upper-class greens, and ultimately a U.S. icon as gas prices ballooned in recent years.
We await President Obama’s embrace of the Japanese/hybrid example with a $2-per-gallon federal gas-tax hike.