• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

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Keep your eye on the road ahead

This week, it's easy to get lulled into driving with your eyes on the rear-view mirror. Chrysler apparently comes out of bankruptcy on the very day that GM goes into Chapter 11 reorganization. If Consumer Reports' figures from a couple of months back are to be believed, this whole fiasco will cost each US taxpayer something on the order of $1500. Of course, since those estimates are months old, they're probably low. Probably way low.

June 2, 2009
 

This week, it's easy to get lulled into driving with your eyes on the rear-view mirror. Chrysler apparently comes out of bankruptcy on the very day that GM goes into Chapter 11 reorganization. If Consumer Reports' figures from a couple of months back are to be believed, this whole fiasco will cost each US taxpayer something on the order of $1500. Of course, since those estimates are months old, they're probably low. Probably way low.

For your money, what you get is 70% ownership of a company whose idea of a revitalized product line consists of only 34 product nameplates (down from 48), a lot more V8-powered muscle cars, and -- oh yeah -- a $30K+ overweight plug-in hybrid sedan. A company with a long history of thinking safely inside of the box, and of then shrinking the box.

Of course, you also get about a 10% stake in Fiat/Chrysler. And Fiat has been a remarkable turnaround story in the last decade or so. (Before that, it looked a lot like Chrysler's European twin, only with more trips to the government bailout window.) Still, their family sedans are hardly at the cutting edge of European quality -- which, as a whole, isn't what it was fifteen years ago.

So if your idea of the automotive future looks a lot like 1968 (a new generation of muscle cars and the beginning of the import invasion), maybe this is your week.

For my part, I'm more intrigued by what's going on in the smaller (much smaller) car companies. In places like Germany, and even Hungary.

Debuting at last month's Hannover Auto Show, we have the Loremo (Low Resistance Mobile). The first model has a two-cylinder turbo-diesel engine that gets 157 miles per gallon, but takes 16 - 20 seconds to get from 0 to 60 mph. On a purely rational basis, that level of acceleration is quite adequate. Still, for those who insist that transportation be entertaining, three additional power trains (with higher torque numbers) are in the works. Pictures here. Video here. Certified roadworthy in Germany, where (you might recall) they sometimes drive really fast.

Of course, if you don't want to move to Germany, you can't get a Loremo yet. What you can get (or at least reserve for Fall delivery, if you're in California) is an Aptera. Still over 100 mpg, or about 120 miles between charges using no gasoline at all. (Same price range as the Chevy Volt, but three times the driving range and available a full year sooner.)

Even the Hungarians are getting into the act. Their Antro line (Solo, plus Duo to follow) isn't targeted to be available until 2012, but is designed for 150 mpg in gas-electric hybrid trim, and is working on an all-electric version with at least partial solar recharging.

What these companies (and others, around the world) have going for them is ignorance. They don't know that future cars have to look like past ones, and be made like past ones on huge assembly lines with high minimum production volumes, and weigh 2+ tons like past ones. They think automobiles can be made mostly from carbon fiber composites instead of steel. They took a look at ideas like the "hypercar" concept that the Rocky Mountain Institute put forward almost 20 years ago and started thinking about how they could make it even better. Meanwhile, the companies you and I now own big shares of spent those same two decades in echo chambers, telling themselves all the reasons nothing was going to change.

Yesterday, as I was walking to my barn, I observed a very common situation. A full-grown crow was flying slowly above the trees, bobbing and swerving as much as (s)he could to avoid the incessant attacks of the far more agile starlings which were chasing it. I couldn't tell whether the crow was coming out of bankruptcy or going into it, but it sure looked like the starlings were winning the contest. So if I could invest in one or the other, it wouldn't be the crow.

Something on the order of $175 billion, mainly for 70% ownership of a company whose market capitalization -- even before bankruptcy -- wasn't 1% of that amount. Starts to make investing in property just slightly off the shores of Florida look like a good deal.

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