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The New American Car

Krissy Clark

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Los Angeles Auto Show
(David McNew/Getty Images)
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Auto industry CEOs and union leaders are back in Detroit empty-handed this weekend. They spent the week on Capitol Hill begging, unsuccessfully, for help - 25 million dollars worth - to avoid possible bankruptcy and even more layoffs. Congress has refused to bail them out, at least so far. But in the meantime, we here on the show thought we'd offer our own bailout. Not in dollars, but in ideas. Weekend America's Krissy Clark has been asking Americans from different walks of life one question: How should we re-imagine the American car?

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  • By Susan Mackay

    From Wayzata, MN, 11/27/2008

    I appreciate the previous comments, and I realize that mine is definitely in another category. It's intended to put a smile on the face of us drivers who spend so much time in our cars and, by implication, the same amount of time looking at - probably unconsciously - other cars. Most of those cars are black, brown, gray, or some other dark color. What fun - an at no extra cost to the mfg - to imagine roads full of pastel Easter-egg color cars! Every once in a while, I see a pink, yellow, pastel blue or green car, and I picture what it would look like if most of the cars were those colors. What a great way to 'lighten up' in these dark days. Even those who choose to stick with Henry Ford's color(s) would perhaps feel a little twitch at the corners of their mouths as they try not to smile.

    By Alicia Stearns

    From Cincinnati, OH, 11/24/2008

    First, I must say I'm a little bit disturbed by this segment in general. There was an altogether disappointing lack of focus on the large obstacle of carbon emissions.

    The discussion with the Google employee was like-wise disappointing. He mentioned envisioning being able to read or do other activities while being transported and not having to drive. This is already possible. Just hop on the local bus, streetcar, light rail train, or subway train. While I understand the purpose of the story was to focus on cars, I do not think the car industry will ever be what is was and it seems very foolish to think that it will. If the big three really wants to get back into the game, they will first have to admit that in the forseeable future, cars and transportation will most likely be completely redefined. At least here in the states.

    By mona lisa

    From omaha, NE, 11/23/2008

    Well, I do know what cars need. First, more head room and I am short, so you know that most of the cars on the road have no head room because the decision makers said "make cars oval like a bullet, so they can go fast." Most of us just use cars to go to work and to get things done, we are NOT car racers or teenage boys! So, cars can be more square to let our heads not hit the roof of the car. And the seats. SO VERY uncomfortable, especially fords (I will never rent a ford because their seats are like sitting on bricks and when you get out of a Ford your back hurts so bad that you cannot walk). I have to drive rentals on my job for travel and have driven hundreds of cars, all different makes and models for hundreds of miles. So far, the one that gave the most in comfort and control and head room was the Chevy HHR. Surprise surprise, it saved my life with its manuverability and it had head room and the blind spot was not TOO BAD (but all the auto makers could improve that blind spot). And the seat belts. Mostly suck, they slide up your chest to cut you in the throat, they should come with softness where the belt hits the neck. I have more ideas but would the big 3 ever listen? One more thing, the car makers should make a car like the cars in the 1940's, lots of head room, lots of leg room and you can see over the hood and they were short, easy to park). The other thing and the worst, you mostly sit so low in cars that you can not see out of the car, so many accidents are because you anc not see out of the car. You are like a sardine in a can and it is terrible, there is no seeing the road in front of you. And oh, oh, oh, "the best one more thing," WINDOW WINGS! The big auto makers with their feet "Glued to the Gold" took out the Window Wings in cars." Window Wings were great, you did not have to use air conditioning (very green) and you could cool off, change the air in the car and they were on both sides and some cars even had them in the back! They are great! And a truck without window wings is just a terrible thing. Okay, get your feet loose from the gold and make a car you can see out of, sit in comfortably, and get some air. Yes, there is other stuff like gas mileage, etc. but that is a given. Your welcome, Mona.

    By F Perri

    From Torrance, CA, 11/23/2008

    As a nearly twenty year veteran of the car dealership system (experienced in parts, sales and service) and having worked for American, European and Pacific Rim car companies, I believe that I might have some useful observations here.

    American car companies can turn themselves around and be profitable. The process will involve massive culture shock both to the manufacturing end as well as the dealership end of the American car business, but it will be necessary to survive.

    My humble plan:

    1)Make attractive product which speaks to today's buyer. That seems like a stretch, but GM and Ford are nearly there. Many GM cars are very attractive (rear wheel drive Cadillacs, the Pontiac G8, and the new Malibu) are price competetive vehicles of high quality. Americans won't get near them in the numbers they deserve to be sold in. A marketing problem? An image problem? Perhaps.

    2)Make bold moves. Sure, that's Ford's marketing mantra, but the U.S. car indsustry is notoriously slow to change. How about GM making all of their half ton or larger trucks and sport utilities either hybrid or diesel? There's a move with existing technology that would excite green folks and techies alike. How about a program to take in old 80's cars of the same make with a sizable bonus (since their trade value is near scrap) and make the new purchase nearly impossible to resist? It was Henry Ford, after all,who took the bold step to pay the Five Dollar a Day wage, so that his workers could afford the cars that he built.

    3)Empower the dealerships and make them consumer friendly. When I worked for U.S. manufacturers, car dealers were viewed with a certain mistrust. Service departments were seen as a necessary evil. Yet this is where the European and Pacific rim companies shine. Make it easy for the client to bring a car in for warranty work. Empower dealerships to make decisions on warranty repairs rather than waiting for a zone representative. Heck, make the maintenance no charge for a couple of years. This will bring the customer back to the dealerships, where, if treated with respect and courtesy, a relationship can be built which will hopefully result in the same brand of car being purchased next time.

    4)Change the advertising and marketing to methods which speak to rather than at Americans. When's the last time you saw a BMW ad which mentioned another procuct? America's cars can stand on their own merits. Advertising which insults the intelligence of folks doesn't inspire people to buy any product.

    5)Change the car buying culture of Americans. When I was first began driving in the late 70's, folks were just starting to buy imports en masse as a result of the 1973 and 1979 gas crises. The imported car was the exception rather than the rule. Ask a car buyer today what they'll consider, and it's invariably an import. We now have perhaps three generations of Americans who have been issued shoddy U.S. vehicles with uncaring support, who have happily been embraced by the Pacific Rim and European car companies. Tearing these customers away from their current loyalties will require great skill and strength from American car companies; strength in product and the folks who support it.

    History shows that these methods do work. Two cases in point. Audi was nearly dead in the U.S. after the Audi 5000 unintended acceleration boondoggle. Audi, in 1994, had restructured their model names, and started a no charge maintenance program. Soon afterward, a new Audi A4 was introduced, with very aggressive lease and purchase programs. Sales ratcheted upward with authority. Volkswagen adopted a similar strategy, and with the New Beetle, enjoyed similar success.

    Now, as an armchair car executive, I understand that I'm no doubt oversimplifying the issues involved. There are other huge issues at hand, such as overproduction capability, and the health care and retirement costs for former workers. However, the engine that drives any product based business is sales.

    I wish them, and us, good luck.

    By Joe Keegan

    From Elgin, IL, 11/22/2008

    The next american car should have this:
    -it should have a sensor letting you know if its okay to drive after drinking
    -it should have a tube to send things to the back row so you don't have to take your hands of the wheel.
    -it should have scratch-resistant paint
    -it should have stronger metal so your car doesen't get wrecked in a accident

    By rock westfall

    From seattle, WA, 11/22/2008

    the big three are no more idiots than the financial industry, people just understand the care industry ,they are doing better,they should offer a 1ook warranty for sucurity ,the feds offered a farm credit for 3ton vehicles and genusises bought hummers?how about encouraging conservation

    By Lathardus Goggins II

    From Wilmington, NC, 11/22/2008

    The problem with the American "3" is as old as "They can have any color car they want, as long as it black." - Henry Ford. The car companies have taken a minimal approach - no innovation until forced by law or market.

    I want a car:
    built like a tank; gets 100 mpg at 100 mph (or the equivalent); is stylish/cool; I can put my family of five into; and cost $10k.

    Impossible - sure. (So was going to the moon in 1960). If the "3" could only do 20% today; fine. And, few years from now they can do 35% better, and each year better; not just different color and more gadgets. The "3" became complacent. They should seek to make the impossible common place.

    By Mauro Salas

    From st cloud, FL, 11/22/2008

    this is what happend when company loose contact with the consumer.I grew up driving chevy,I got marry and switch to dodge and chrysler vehicle,specially the minivan.I believe in and support american made vehicle . I can not affort to continue buying america made vehicle every 3 or 4 years.my relative all drive toyota,these vehicle last longer than america made vehicle.I can not understand why for the price we can't make a better vehicle.WE shouldn't bail the 3 automaker."free market society".

    By D Wiegand

    From Seattle, WA, 11/22/2008

    The new American car: Rev 1.0
    (All successful cars are iterative - let's not succumb to analysis paralysis!)

    - Needs to be made with current technology
    - Should be made as a platform (to share many body styles)
    - Needs to use current energy infrastructure
    - Needs to be priced to be available to most people (sub $20K or so)

    The best option would be a plug-in diesel/electric hybrid.

    This solution can use available infrastructure (biodiesel, electric grid, dino-diesel if necessary). Needs no new technology breakthrough. Can license bits we need from current suppliers to buy R&D time for better solutions. In the meantime, it generates jobs, revenues, and gets American engineering on the right track!

    My $.02

    - David

    By Bob Cella

    From North Hollywood, CA, 11/22/2008

    We've all caught at least a passing glimpse of the 'Smart' cars popping up on our streets. They're arriving slowly. This is the car that, in Europe, achieves 70 mpg, powered by a Mercedes turbo charged engine.
    The smart car that is allowed to be imported into the U.S. has a different engine, made by mitsubishi. This mitsubishi engine delivers only 35 mpg in the U.S. import Smart. Hmm. Somethings fishy... I guess the 'Big 3' better go to Washington and ask them for billions of dollars so that they can engineer something efficient.
    How about simply allowing the turbo-Mercedes powered Smart into the U.S.?

    In the bigger picture, we could employ tens of thousands of Americans for years to come by RE-TRAIN-ING America. Rail is, to this day, the most fuel efficient way to move anything. Imagine rail cars with big 'Ford' 'GM' and 'Chrysler' insignias on the front.
    A city such as Los Angeles could have it's Big Red Cars back. A network so efficient that civil engineers used to travel to Los Angeles to study its rail system for modeling elsewhere.
    Every city in every state could embark on the construction of public rail systems. (above ground, or elevated) They could even be powered by the 'Big 3'.
    Considering worldwide energy costs, the environment, and the employment issues at hand, truly the future of the automobile is its being recognized as obsolete.

    By Steven Matz

    From Chicago, IL, 11/22/2008

    While traveling past a construction site that other day I noticed just how massive the typical pickup truck is. The hood is huge, the cab is cavernous, the bed is 8' long...How often is all that size ever used? How many trips does the drive make alone? Most materials are delivered to the job site by the supplier- so why do contractors drive the trucks?

    Can there be a more useful vehicle for the construction industry? Something small, robust, functional like a skid steer loader. It could utilize a diesel engine, be configured around the module of a 4x8 sheet of plywood and only a two-seater. I envision something like a cross between a Bobcat and a dune buggy.

    By Phil Hursthouse

    From Round Lake Park, IL, 11/22/2008

    The perfect car passed by 100 years ago. The steam car burned kerosene and many other fuels by complete combustion – not emitting the pollution of partially combusted fuel. The power efficiency of steam was rated at 90% which put the internal combustion engine with an efficiency of only 20%, to shame. Most of the wasted energy in an ICE is exhausted as heat going out uselessly through the tail pipe.
    Would there be a fuel crisis today if the electric starter hadn’t brought down steams superiority?

    By Terri Jones

    From Henderson, NV, 11/22/2008

    I'd rather bail out the US automakers than the Wall Street Fat Cats. U.S. automakers not only employ lots of middle-class Americans, they actually produce something! There's nothing wrong with American cars, it's just that the Asians are good a producing cars, too. So there's comepetition. From what I see, Americans think bigger is better--they don't care who is hurt in a crash, as long as it's not them in their giant gargantuan-mobiles. Those of us driving a mid-size car--as a compromise--are afraid to switch to a smaller, more efficient car for fear of being squashed. Let's change the minds and attitudes of the Expedition XL and Hummer drivers, who care no more about the environment than they do their fellow drivers.

    By C. Miller

    From CA, 11/22/2008

    US carmakers should look at what makes foreign cars so popular. Offer those features, but improve them. Look at the popular car prices, and lower the price for the American made car. The value of buying an American made product must be demonstrated, and well, so that pride in buying what we make right here in the United States of America is restored. Pundits say two things influence decisions - fear and greed - US car makers should ditch the greed factor, and it will improve the fear factor that the US is going broke. If we spend all of our earned dollars here at home, it should be a win-win.

    By JB Dickey

    From Seattle, WA, 11/22/2008

    I don't care about GPS and maps that talk and HD radio. I want more leg room and head room and a rearview mirror that isn't in the middle of the view. And I want wing windows so I can get some air without using the vent system, and I want backseat windows that go all the way down. Electronic gizmos don't interest me - comfort and durability and economy do.

    By Jim Savage

    From San Diego, CA, 11/22/2008

    Let's not support the Big Three. They don’t know what they are doing. Even if they come out with an electric car or a new hybrid nobody would buy it because it has the Ford or Chevy logo on it, which nobody trusts and buyers associate with lower quality. Why would I buy a Ford hybrid when I can get a Toyota hybrid?
    If we are going to give anyone the 25 billion to jump start our auto industry I say give the money to a company with a world renown reputation for producing futuristic and technically innovative products that everyone wants to buy. Products that raise the bar for all competitors in the market. I say give the 25 billion to Steve Jobs to make an iCar. You know people all over the world will be waiting in line to buy one!

    By Bev Ogilvie

    11/22/2008

    Along with all of the necessary and important changes in a new, ideal car, there is a minor one I propose: I would love to see the high beam control moved from the steering wheel back down to the left floor space where it used to reside (many, many years ago). There is plenty of room for the small button, and an idle left foot just sitting there ready to be of use! Fumbling with the turn signal control, trying to hastily dim my brights, I have missed that little floor button every darn time I have needed it in the years since they inexplicably moved it.

    By Thomas Curtis

    From Cataumet, MA, 11/22/2008

    Based on the "New Energy", natural gas, in reality methane, as proposed by T. Boone Pickens, the car for the next 30 years or so should be a hybrid. A car with an electric drive operating off a battery charged by a direct methanol fuel cell.

    Pickens was partially right about natural gas, but as an oil man his view is of thermogenic natural gas created by compressed organic matter at high temperatures over geologic time. A far more plentiful supply of methane exists in the seabed in the continental margins. Upon death Phytoplankton, zooplantkon, and other organic matter from the eutrophic zone of the ocean, has settled to the seafloor and been buried. Micro-organisms have fed upon this detritus and created methane. At such depths as the continental margins, the methane would be in a liquid phase, however at the temperatures in the ocean there the methane molecules are sequestered in a crystalline structure formed with water called a clathrate.

    There are vast amounts of methane clathrate offshore countries with a shoreline. Research in gas hydrates (90% methane) have been underway in Northern Canada in the MacKenzie River Delta (the Mallik field) for about 30 years. Methane hydrates also exist in the permafrost of the Arctic. Japan has been a major researcher in the Mallik field because Japan seeks energy independence based on methane hydrate deposits off shore of Honshu.

    Methane, extracted from methane hydrates, or made available from thermogenic natural gas, when converted to methanol (the simplest alcohol), can be transported most efficiently in pipelines for liquids like oils that already exist. Gas pipelines are costly because of the need for compressors and liquid separators about every 300 miles.

    Methanol could also be burned directly in internal combustion engines with only minor modifications. It burns for cleanly than gasoline because, although it produces carbon dioxide in exhaust, there are far fewer carbon atoms in methane than gasoline molecules It has been used at the Indianapolis 500 for years.

    Almost more importantly, if the economy used methanol as the main energy feed stock, in lieu of oil, direct methanol fuel cells could be used, run backwards, to produce methanol from carbon dioxide and water. Since we have coal fired power plants that produce a lot of carbon dioxide these power plants could be turned into cogeneration plants producing electricity and fuel for transportation.

    Extracting methane from methane hydrates in permafrost will be necessary to slow down global warming. Permafrost in the East Siberian Arctic has been submerged by glacial melting since the last ice age. In recent years, global warming has thawed the upper layers of this submerged permafrost and liberated methane into the seawater. Recent research has measured levels that are 100 to 1000 times the normal background level in seawater.

    There are other sources of biogenic methane, Midwest hog farmers have captured methane from manure pits to provide power for their farms.

    Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, can be generated from many biomass sources.

    Sorry for this diatribe on methanol, but methanol is a far more feasible and desirable energy source than methanol or hydrogen. Methanol is a plentiful feed stock for the chemical industry already for plastics, pharmaceutical, and many other uses. I have investigated this problem quite diligently, especially since hearing the delegates at the Republican National Convention chanting “drill, baby, drill”.

    If interested, I can help you identify authorities far more knowledgeable than I with regard to this “new energy” and the implications of supplanting oil with methanol.

    By Donald Klie

    From Bluff City, TN, 11/22/2008

    Tata Motors in India is offering a small car (the Nano) for the equivalent of about $2500 USD.

    It's pretty stripped, and probably wouldn't meet US safety regulations as is.

    I would think, that with some design innovation and economies of scale a version for the US market could be made to sell for under $5000, with $3500 a better target. It could be an enclosed 2 seat 3 or 4 wheel vehicle with adequate room for several bags of groceries. I think a conventional gasoline engine would be sufficient, and 75 MPG or better should be obtainable.

    The market is as a second commute car, and the attraction is that the reduced operating cost would pay back the price of the car within a few years. This could yield a very high sales volume, and a substantial reduction of gasoline consumption and emissions within a short time. Highway and parking congestion should be improved.

    By Lorelei P

    From Providence, 11/22/2008

    The American car companies fought tooth and nail over requirements on improving gas mileage. They'll never do it! How about Obama's administration BUYS 1 of these companies and awards it to a successful green-car proposal that arises from a nation-wide (American) competition. Re-outfit the facilities and train the union workers in GREEN tech. But DUMP these car execs that can't pursue NEW and VITAL ideas.

    By Harris Steele

    From Sulphur Springs, AR, 11/22/2008

    Having grown up near Detroit, I often daydreamed about cars and the industry that produced them.

    A persistent question of mine:
    Why can't we move past the dependence on rubber tires and the drive train that supports them? How about a "hovercraft" type vehicle? One that is propelled by air and turned by adjusting the direction of the downward airflow from the vehicle.

    By David Cooke

    From Raleigh, NC, 11/22/2008

    I was a little irritated by the focus, in WA's segment, on making cars "fabulous". If the government gets involved in financing the auto industry, then it must do so in a way that serves the long-term public good, by supporting the widespread adoption of vehicles that are:
    1. Safe
    2. Reliable
    3. Green
    4. Economical

    to eventually replace the stock of absurdly oversized, over-polluting, gas-wasting, unreliable American-made SUVs in which the free market has blithely supported consumers in indulging.

    By Matthew Tietje

    From Morganton, NC, 11/22/2008

    Why doesn't Ford start selling their small Diesel engine car in the states? It seems to be very popular overseas -- it was even featured in the new Bond film, right?

    By Sue-Ellen Davison

    From La Salle, IL, 11/22/2008

    My grandmother, who was born in 1898, started driving when she was a teenager. She was not the first woman to drive a car, and all these decades later, we are still driving them. How much longer is it going to take car makers to notice that women drive, and women carry handbags?

    Putting my purse in the trunk renders it inaccessible.

    If I set it on the passenger seat, when I have to hit the brakes firmly, it sails off the seat and onto the floor, frequently spilling its contents, some of which rolls under the seat.

    When I have a passenger, I put my purse on the floor of the back seat, where I may be able to reach it with difficulty, or not at all.

    When I have a full load of passengers, I must prevail upon one of them to hold my bag.

    All I want is a convenient, accessible place to put my purse.

    By Teresa Motley

    From Orlando, FL, 11/22/2008

    VW brought back the Bug. Ford should resurect the Pinto, banking on America's youth and the success of the VW New Bug, as well as Toyota's Scion xB. BUT, they can do all the other auto manufaturers one better by bringing it back as a Hybrid. They don't have to redesign an aero-dynamic, energy-efficient body type, since the Pinto style was leader-of-the pack. I had a 2-door hatchback, neon red/orange Pinto in 1976 when I was 20 years old, and it was a party machine, until I totaled it when I flipped it through a rural log fence rear first. It did not burst into flames, and I lived without injury to tell the tale. What better testimony. Like the Scion xB, Ford can offer add-on's, like spinner wheels and chrome gear shifts and brake pedals. The new Pinto will be popular around the world, and will fit into parking spots in London or Istanbul.

    By judi beck

    From boone, NC, 11/22/2008

    here's how the great american car should be imagined:
    1. with all recyclable parts
    2 .in a green facility
    3. by people who have been trained in systems thinking EG - how does this product affect the world around me and future generations?

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