Rant and Rave

Sometime in the early seventies, the Arab oil embargo caught the U.S. auto companies totally unprepared. We were all driving big gas guzzlers - and suddenly - no gas. Gasoline was simply unavailable. There were long lines of cars - many blocks long.

Quietly, the Japanese companies entered the market. It hadn't been planned. The Japanese for many years had been manufacturing small, fuel-efficient cars. So they just started exporting them to the U.S.

Until that time, the U.S. companies had had no interest whatever (and perhaps had never even heard the expression) in "miles per gallon." We were the big strong United States! We had no reason to worry about - or even think about - conservation of energy. That was for those "wusses" in Europe and the Far East.

Nonetheless, Detroit was forced to produce smaller more fuel-efficient vehicles to counter the Japanese incursion into their market. So, for the next decade or so the country did see some not-very-well-made smaller American cars.

In the past several decades, there have been a few notable, creative, new vehicles. For example, the minivan is a product that has a clearly defined target market, and was perfectly designed to satisfy the needs of that target market - namely, baby boomers, having kids and living in the suburbs where it is necessary to drive their own kids, and their kids' friends to school, play groups and other events. Sedans were too small. Minivans were perfect - and did not have to rely on horsepower and/or speed to be attractive to the target market. Thanks go to the Chrysler Corporation for the minivan. There are other examples, notably funky vehicles like the PT Cruiser and the Toyota Scion.

But that didn't last long, and for the next 20 to 25 years, the companies (and, in truth, most of us) have mostly forgotten all about "miles per gallon." Detroit didn't really like anything having to do with "MPG" because it wasn't exciting - and it didn't sell cars. Detroit knew that what sold cars was the great duo - horsepower and speed.

Why? Why are horsepower and speed so important? I say "so important" because over 90 percent of all auto advertisements focus on power and speed (as I'm sure you have noticed).

First there's the question, "Are horsepower and speed innately desirable, or are they so powerful because the constant advertisements make them desirable?" Well, we do know that horsepower and speed are desirable among teenage boys. We also know that many (most?) men are always, at some level, teenage boys. We also know that advertising works if you tap into a desire that already exists.

So, does the strategy of the auto companies work? Of course it works. (Does a "miles per gallon" strategy work? Not unless you're broke. Or there's no gas.)

But are horsepower and speed so powerful that over several decades, the auto companies have had nothing else to promote? The answer is that auto companies haven't come up with anything that can challenge horsepower and speed. And we should understand that the auto companies love horsepower and speed because they're very simple to accomplish. You don't need much in the way of brainpower or creativity to increase horsepower and add speed.

The most obvious - and ridiculous - change in the U.S. auto industry over the past 15 or so years has been the SUV.

What about the women who buy SUVs? Well, they want to be big and strong and intimidating, as well. If they have any true vehicular needs that are fulfilled by the SUV, those needs could better be served by the minivan - which they eschew because they are attempting to avoid the "minivan mom" stereotype. Let us not forget the maxim that, "Our vehicle helps us become who we wish we really were."

Compare the SUV to the minivan. Is there a clearly defined target market for the SUV? Does the SUV fill the needs of that target market as did the minivan? The vast majority of SUV buyers have no clearly defined need, as did the minivan buyers. Advertisements for the SUVs focus on chasing mountain goats over the Alps, or some other outrageous - and hardly ever encountered - off-road thrills. Who has these needs? No one we know. These are stupid ads, aimed at gullible drivers.

The desire of the SUV driver is to be big and strong - and intimidating. SUV drivers want to sit up high and literally "look down" on other drivers. And they want to drive as recklessly as the drivers in the off-road ads. Most are adult males - who insist on continuing to be teenage boys.

The SUV simply does not fulfill a valid need for the overwhelming majority of us. Consider, for example, the Hummer. Does anyone actually have a valid NEED that is fulfilled by the Hummer?

Do the auto companies know that the SUV is a stupid, gas-guzzling irresponsible vehicle? Of course they do; and they love it. The SUV provides the largest profit of any vehicle sold by auto companies.

Many years ago, people actually drove sanely and politely. You may not remember "the good old days" because you may not even have been born. I'm talking 40 years ago. And I do remember.

Drive anywhere in this country today, and you'd be hard pressed to describe drivers as sane or polite.

Have we all just become insane and impolite? I don't think so. The auto companies have been a major influence in shaping "what we have become" through the products they have made and the methods by which they have advertised those products. They have done us a grievous disservice. How have they done it?

Many years ago, the U.S. auto companies became aware of the incredible selling power of horsepower and speed. First of all, horsepower and speed were relatively simple attributes to build into their products. (In truth, high schoolers can do it.) Secondly, it was very easy for automakers to tell us about it - being able to show it to us on television was magic!

Think about automotive ads on TV. Nearly all of them show drivers traveling at outrageous speeds, driving recklessly, sometimes with the simple caveat (in small print), "professional driver on closed track" - or some such horse hockey.

The auto companies and their ad agencies have relied on the gullibility of several hundred million of us. We have, indeed, been gullible, but we are not all stupid. But we have been duped. For decades.

And now it is time to tell them that we know what they've been doing (and not doing) and that we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.

But let us not forget, that the auto manufacturers and their ad agencies understand only one language - MONEY.

We are in a very powerful position, however, because the money is our money. And we have the power to make 2006 the worst sales year in memory for SUVs, and for any vehicle that's designed with ridiculous horsepower and speed in mind.

Let us not forget that the U.S. manufacturers have not been alone here. Nearly all the foreign manufacturers have learned from the U.S. auto manufacturers and have adopted the horsepower and speed advertising techniques.

We must realize, too, that given our current gas crisis, many of us will need to replace the vehicles that we have. But we must be careful how we replace them. We must not buy outrageous, irresponsible NEW vehicles. If we must buy another vehicle, we should try to buy a used vehicle or, a smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicle.

We have been duped. And now we shall get even.

We are in a mess. Gasoline prices are at their highest - in a market rife with gas-guzzling SUVs owned by people who cannot afford to fill the tank to get to work!

Can we blame the auto companies? After all, they were just making money - can we blame them for that?

Can we blame the people who supplied the money? They were just fulfilling their own needs - however shallow. But let us not forget, that we each have the freedom to spend our monies as we each see fit. We are under no obligation to foresee the repercussions of our actions. Nor would we be in any position to change the future. There are 280 million of us - each attempting to fulfill his own needs and desires.

So, who should have foreseen the possible repercussions of our selfish, profligate behavior?

Perhaps our leaders?

I think we have good reason to blame our leaders. After all, who IS supposed to foresee things like this? Clearly a lot could have been done - and wasn't.

I think we also have good reason to blame the auto companies. After all, they've taken a decades-long vacation.

So now what?

How about this: We (just "us" - the little people) give some advice to the leaders of the auto companies and the leaders of the country. WE have no hidden agenda or motives - monetary or otherwise. WE just have the best interests of the country in which we live. And we're not dumb; at least not as dumb as they seem to be.

How about we generate a list of, say, 100 ideas for getting our country out of this mess?

This business of consuming millions of barrels of oil has got to stop.

Who the heck do we think we are?

Please send us your ideas. We'll collect, edit them, and forward them to the right people.



Tom Magliozzi

P.S. Here are a few of our ideas, to help get this started...

1. Car pool! Can we cut the number of cars on the road in half?

2. Should there be strict requirements for the right to own and drive a very large vehicle - or very large taxes?

3. Shouldn't the police be enforcing the speed limit?

4. And what about public transportation - shouldn't it be dramatically improved?

5. Should there be free bikes to use around cities?

6. Shouldn't we be encouraging the development of interesting, exciting and fuel-efficient vehicles? What are your specific ideas?