In December, GM, by then a mendicant groveling before its congressional masters, ran a full-page newspaper ad apologizing for having "disappointed" everyone, vowing to stop selling so many "pickups and SUVs" (which were 11 of GM's 20 most profitable products in 2008), and promising "revolutionary new products like the Chevrolet Volt." Another ad, which appeared before December and is still running, features a car attached to an electric cord, and says the Volt amounts to "reinventing the automobile."
Last week, in an unenthralled summary of GM's "viability" plan, Obama's administration said: "GM earns a large share of its profits from high-margin trucks and SUVs, which are vulnerable to a continuing shift in consumer preference to smaller vehicles. Additionally, while the Chevy Volt holds promise, it will likely be too expensive to be commercially successful in the short term."
The stunning shift in consumer preferences that should make the White House's freshly minted auto experts feel vulnerable has been reported under headlines such as "Like a Rock: Hybrid Car Sales Plummet" (Wall Street Journal, Dec. 9) and "Hybrid Car Sales Go from 60 to 0 at Breakneck Speed" (Los Angeles Times, March 17). Absent $4 gasoline, customers, those nuisances with their insufferable preferences, do not want the vehicles the politicians want them to want, even with manufacturers now offering large rebates and other incentives.
The two best-selling vehicles in America this year are large pickup trucks (Ford F-Series and Chevy Silverado). In February, Toyota sold 13,600 Tundra and Tacoma pickups and 7,232 Priuses. It sells the Prius at a loss, which it can afford to do because it makes pots of money selling pickups. Has the Car Designer in Chief, aka the president, considered the possibility that what he calls "the cars of tomorrow" will forever be that?
His administration cannot be faulted for failing to do well what cannot be done well -- industrial policy, wherein the political class, with negligible experience in commerce, flounders. The administration can, however, be faulted for trying. The government's wallow in the automobile industry, under this and the previous administration, merits a hockey coach's evaluation of his team: "Everyday you guys look worse and worse. And today you played like tomorrow."
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