The automobile industry remains in the unenviable position of being stuck between two competing and frequently conflicting market forces. On the one hand they have to provide consumers with a product that they want at a price they can afford. But at the same time they are at least partially subject to the whims of the government in terms of regulations and the secondary effects of government policy, such as skyrocketing gas prices. Combine this with a significant portion of the market that wants “green technology” for their cars, and what’s an industrial giant to do?
A good clue as to how they are reacting to these various forces can be seen again this year at the New York Auto Show. Along with the usual displays of concept cars, some of the next generation of offerings seem to indicate industry trends in response to consumer demands heading in two directions.
First, there is still a lot of demand for traditional, gasoline powered, internal combustion engine vehicles, but they are once again pushing ways to make them more economical and efficient. Some of these, like the Mazda 3 (pictured) and the newest Ford Fiesta have been streamlined to boast 40 mpg averages. In addition to leaner engines, Mazda is employing lighter weight, high tensile strength steel, cutting the vehicle’s weight by up to 8%, further cutting fuel consumption.
But there is apparently still a demand for more “green technology” cars, so they’re pushing a variety of hybrids, clean diesel engine models and all electric cars like the hybrid Chevy Volt and the all electric Nissan Leaf.
What’s not being pushed as much this year seems to be the alternative fuel vehicles which we heard more about a couple of years ago. These include hydrogen fueled cars and CNG (compressed natural gas) engines. The latter in particular is curious to me, since we’re still sitting on an ocean of natural gas here in America and the technology certainly exists to put it to work if we can get the infrastructure in place to allow drivers to refuel them.
Absent a serious change in US energy policy soon, gas prices aren’t going to be going back to traditional levels in the near future. This is going to continue to not only infuriate voters, but suppress travel and other investments. But I’ll give the auto industry credit for one thing. It’s hard to turn a ship that large on a dime, but they certainly seem to be trying to react to the conditions on the ground.