All other things being equal, I would prefer to drive a car made by unionized American workers in the employ of an American corporation. I come from an auto town, one that has made Autolite and Champion spark plugs, LOF window glass, GM transmissions, Dana drive trains, and Jeep Wranglers. I teach UAW students and count UAW members as my neighbors. In addition to these local biases, I also believe in a certain economic patriotism; I don't see how the U.S. economy can thrive unless it makes something.
The problem is that all other things are not equal. Far from it.
Yesterday, Honda yet again raised the bar for the global auto industry by celebrating
the start of production of its FCX Clarity, the world’s first hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle intended for mass production. In a ceremony at a factory an hour north of Tokyo, the first assembly-line FCX Clarity rolled out to the applause of hundreds of Honda employees wearing white jump suits.
Honda will make just 200 of the futuristic vehicles over the next three years, but said it eventually planned to increase production volumes, especially as hydrogen filling stations became more common.
Instead of waiting for the long-promised "Manhattan Project" that American politicians keep saying they'll get around to enacting someday to help us transition to the post-petroleum economy, Honda went out and built a hydrogen-powered car. Sure, this is a gamble, a risk--but sticking with the gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine is a gamble and a risk too.
“Basically, we can mass produce these now,” said Kazuaki Umezu, head of Honda’s Automobile New Model Center, where the FCX Clarity is built. “We are waiting for the infrastructure to catch up.”
Why couldn't GM, Ford or Chrysler have made what Honda announced yesterday? Fuel cells are not brand new technology. Using electric motors to power cars has been done for 90 years. To be sure, there were various engineering challenges that had to be addressed, but it's not as if Honda has done magic or invented a whole new concept. This is not to denigrate Honda's engineering feat in the slightest, but only to point out that the chief problems they had to overcome were the size and cost of the fuel cells; they did not develop an entirely new concept. I have little doubt that American engineers working for the Big Three could have done what Honda's engineers did, had their bosses directed them to do so and adequately supported them. But they didn't. Now how long do you think it will be before we see the first American fuel cell vehicle in production?
Not only has Honda leaped ahead of Detroit in terms of engineering and manufacturing, but they're also taking a page from Madison Avenue's old book of automotive marketing and launching their new car with pizzaz. The car doesn't look like a clunky science fair project, but like a sleek ultra-modern sedan. Jamie Lee Curtis is getting one of the first five, and Honda has decided to set up three FCX Clarity dealerships in the Los Angeles area, just about guaranteeing that more Hollywood stars will soon follow suit. Just as celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz helped make the Toyota Prius a hot property, I wouldn't be surprised if the new Honda got some buzz from The Beautiful People very soon.
Instead of figuring out how to design, engineer and market fuel cell vehicles, GM is flogging the hell out of its gigantic GMC
Denial Denali SUV in commercials on the NBA finals that feature it occupied by a lone unseen driver; Ford is stuck with way too many of its nine-passenger Excursions; and Chrysler is offering to guarantee gas prices at $2.99 a gallon for three years in an effort to move more of its Jeep Commanders. These are the acts of a desperate domestic industry; what a contrast with the bold, brash move by Honda.
Sure, in late 2010 the Chevy Volt may hit the showrooms, and I hope for GM's sake it will be a huge success. But given Detroit's extreme reluctance to part with the petroleum-powered internal combustion engine, I won't be surprised if a Japanese manufacturer beats them to it and offers a plug-in hybrid well before that.
No: all other things are not equal, and the inequality is growing.