In a half century of reporting I have never seen any business plagued by such misinformation as the automobile industry.

Think for a minute: Can you imagine that the state of California would order the airline companies to provide every traveler to and from the state with a pair of strap-on flapping glider wings? And the passengers would then be ordered to travel by leaping out of a high window and flapping the wings? All in the name of cleaner and quieter air?

No. That would be nutty.

But they have no problem ordering auto companies to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to sell vehicles that can't be built.

When I was young, people actually believed there was this carburetor that could give a car 100 miles to the gallon, and a little white pill that would let your car run on water. At least in those days, you didn't read such misinformation in the New York Times. Now you read it in the Times.

I speak with some authority here. I was the New York Times bureau chief in Detroit a while back. But the Times has been wrong on the cars and anything “green,” such as the potential of alternative engines, since I left Detroit.

What set me off this time was an “Op Ed” piece in the Nov. 2 Times. Op Ed means the page opposite the editorial page, and the columns are usually written by outsiders. This piece was headlined “Better Cars, Cleaner Air” and written by Daniel F. Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. The article is an appeal to William Clay Ford II, now chief executive of Ford, to set things right.

Here's the kind of statement that drives me crazy:

“Modern technology for engines, transmissions and aerodynamics can help Ford achieve an average fuel economy of 40 mpg (5.9L/100km) for its cars, pickups and SUVs, saving the United States almost 1 million barrels of oil per day…”

And why aren't we getting such fuel economy? Because “unfortunately, old-school Ford executives have left this technology sitting on the shelf …”

What nonsense. There is no way anyone with any technology could average 40 mpg from today's vehicle fleet.

You can get 40 mpg in a reasonably sized car using a turbodiesel. But there is no doubt that new-age diesels are costly items when compared to conventional engines. People from the Sierra Club usually get rid of cost issues with the phrase “… but with mass production …” No. Mass production is great for making sneakers with Asian 12-year-olds. Really lowers cost. But not for this.

Europeans are getting up to 70 mpg (3.4L/100km) from very small diesel engines in very small cars. But Europe's ultra-high mileage cars such as the VW 3L Lupo are expensive for their size, and guess what: They are selling poorly there despite $5 a gallon gasoline. Those diesels are engines non grata in America anyway; cancer-causing, California says, rightly or wrongly.

And as for 40-mpg pickups or big SUVs with some towing or cargo hauling capacity, forget it.

Even partial hybrid trucks of the type Detroit is planning to build would pick up 3 to 5 mpg (from 15 mpg) at a cost of $3,000 to $4,000. It makes no sense to spend $3,000 to $4,000 to save $300 a year in fuel.

Ford says it plans to build — in a few years — a full hybrid Escape SUV that would get 40 mpg. At what cost I don't know. And frankly, considering the trouble Ford is having just putting together an ordinary car nowadays, I'll believe it when I drive it.

Here's another statement from the article:

“Both Toyota and Honda are putting clean, gasoline-electric hybrid cars on the road, and Americans are snapping them up … Japanese automakers aren't just selling cars, they're selling a vision of the future through modern technology.”


I salute Honda and Toyota. Technically Prius and Insight are superb, but they are not practical vehicles. They sold 12,196 Toyota Prius cars and 4,164 Honda Insights in 10 months, of 14,534,937 vehicles sold in the U.S. in those same months. Some snapping!

And as interesting as those vehicle experiments are, the mileage is exaggerated. You won't get it in winter and I wouldn't want to drive those narrow tires in the rain or brake hard on snow. Toyota says it is making a little money on its hybrid Prius (I'd like to see the books before I swallowed that) but Honda must be losing lots on its aluminum-bodied coupe. At $1.279 a gallon I expect sales will be falling, too.

And I might add that those wonderful folks from Japan and Germany with their vision of the future have increased the horsepower on just about every car they sell here in 2002.

Give me the good old days with that little white pill that lets the car run on water.

Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.