If something happens repeatedly, then it’s probably not a coincidence. “Would you like a free upgrade?” they asked me several days ago at a New York airport car rental agency. When I heard the same question last autumn at the beginning of an earlier stay in the U.S., I shrugged, why not? I later regretted it; instead of the compact car I had ordered, I had to drive an SUV. When I floored the gas pedal, it was a real gas guzzler. I was not amused.
This time I planned to to say no thanks to any upgrade offer and insist on the Ford Fiesta I had ordered. Tough luck. It turned out there was no offer for the valued customer, just the message that I had only one choice.
I had arrived at the rental agency more than an hour late due to a delay upon landing, and they had given my reserved car to another customer and no longer had any smaller vehicles on the lot.
“We never have more than a couple. We’re gradually getting rid of them,” the rental agency employee explained in response to my incredulous reaction, and left me to choose between a “truck,” which was a delivery van, and an SUV. I chose the latter and got the keys to a Dodge Durango. Bingo – 3 1/2 tons of dead weight on wheels.
So then I’m sitting inside, surrounded by sheet metal in a car for seven passengers, and I read in the manual that I can expect 14 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway. I recall 2008 and 2009 when gas prices were high, the economy in a deep recession, and Detroit automakers were all griping that Americans were buying few cars in general, and especially that they had lost interest in the thirstier models.
To a certain extent, America was reliving the situation it went through in the late 1970s. During that oil crisis, drivers waited in line for gas, Americans ended their love affair with big cars for a while, and consequently more economical (and in those days more reliable) Japanese models invaded the country.
In late 2008 and early 2009, the federal government had to bail out two of the three big auto manufacturers, GM and Chrysler. Many Republicans berated Democratic President Barack Obama, calling him a socialist for bailing out the auto industry, even though it was actually his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, who had already decided to rescue the automobile manufacturers with federal funds.
Ford, the other “Big Three” automaker, hung on tooth and nail by itself. I recall the complaints from workers at Dearborn’s Ford Rouge plant that their F-150 pickup, otherwise an American legend, was selling so poorly that for the first time in 20 years, production had to be cut from three shifts to one.
“It’s a generational change,” one guide on a Ford plant floor in Michigan had said sadly in those days. “People will never go back to trucks.” The Big Three were racing each other to produce smaller, lighter, more efficient models. The American media were full of predictions that the U.S. had definitively sobered up from its passion for insatiable carburetors and carefree accelerator stomping. That’s what Obama also faced in 2012, when he gave auto manufacturers a deadline of 2025 to reach the fuel economy standards that European and Japanese models were already meeting.
But all that has changed back. Gas is once again relatively cheap compared to 2008 and 2009, and after he arrived at the White House, Donald Trump announced that he would roll back Obama’s limits, which Trump is now preparing to do.
Sales of smaller personal cars have been steeply declining over the past two years. Production of the Ford Fiesta, which had resumed in response to the 2009 crisis, was halted once more this year; GM is closing factories for the previously very popular Chevy Cruze, and various chubby beauties – trucks, SUVs and “crossover” models – are dominating the market again.
Will some further quandary arise in the future? An energy crisis that will bring the auto market to its knees again? America evidently doesn’t believe so, and there is a strong argument that has developed in favor of America’s conclusion. Thanks to a revolution in shale oil and gas extraction, the country is energy self-sufficient. According to a fresh analysis by BP reported in this week’s Wall Street Journal, the U.S. reached a historic high last year in year-to-year growth of fossil fuel production.
Success? From a purely American standpoint, probably so. But as someone who doesn’t rave about supersized automobiles holding a gas nozzle at the tank of a gluttonous Dodge Durango, I’m not the least bit sure this is how progress ought to look. It’s more like things have moved backward 15 or 20 years, or as if they were somehow reeling in a vicious circle. According to the aforementioned BP report, worldwide demand for energy rose by 2.9% last year, the fastest growth since 2010. In the U.S. it was a bit higher: 3.5%.
The reason? The biggest growth in consumption, stronger than expected has caused abnormal weather. More extremely hot and cold days lead to increased use of air conditioning and heating.
I start up my Dodge. Somewhere in the world more oil has to be sucked up in order to get this gas guzzler moving. Outside in the DC suburbs, it’s about 85 degrees, so I turn on the AC full blast. It’s a mega-blast!
Or should I say, a MAGA-blast?