by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
April 11, 2005
DINOSAUR BITES MASTODON
LOS ANGELES -- This week, General Motors announced that it was pulling its advertising from the Los Angeles Times. The spat would be enough to make you bust a gut laughing, except for a troubling underlying reality which was simultaneously being explored in the web-log world.
On April 8, 2005, the Los Angeles Times posted a story announcing "GM Stops buying Ads in The Times." Authored by staff writer David Colker, it begins:
General Motors Corp. on Thursday pulled its advertising from the Los Angeles Times over disagreements with car reviews and other articles that have appeared in the newspaper. The world's largest automaker said the move was "based on strongly voiced objections from our dealers in California about factual errors and misrepresentations in The Times editorial coverage." A GM spokesman would not specify the errors or say which articles caused the rift.
The article, only seven paragraphs long, is vague as to the reasons, except for this remark: "A GM executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday's review of the Pontiac G6 by Times Pulitzer Prize-winning automobile critic Dan Neil was particularly offensive."
So here we have two of the largest, most influential corporations in the world coming to blows over a columnist most of us had never heard of and over a car that most of us have never thought about.
The offending column can be viewed online at www.latimes.com/news/custom/showcase/la-hy-neil6apr06.story. It's hard to imagine how such a modest effort at serious thought could result in this clash of Titans. True, author Dan Neil suggests that high ranking General Motors executives should take the fall for their company's steadily dropping market share. Why should this be controversial? GM's financial problems have been on the front pages for weeks. Yes, Neil is mildly critical of the G6, but more towards the business model that produced it than the car itself. "The G6 is not an awful car. It's entirely adequate. But plainly, adequate is not nearly enough."
Actually, when you read through the collected Neil columns that the Times considered Pulitzer-bait, something else entirely comes through. Neil demonstrates his love of cars, of driving, of power and performance, of the ability of a high-powered automobile to take corners and race over country highways. It's just that he can't quite accept it when the latest muscle-car is only modestly overpowered.
The evidence is clear from the assembled columns. He has reviewed the 469 horsepower Mercedes E55 AMG, the 305 horsepower Nissan Pathfinder Armada, the 552 horsepower (really!) Bentley Continental GT and the 320 horsepower Cadillac XLR. As Neil's articles reveal, the collective price for putting these four stallions in your garage would be something in excess of $430,000. These vehicles look measly compared to the $320,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom with its 453 horsepower V-12 engine. Make it five cars in your garage and the price goes to three-quarters of a million.
There is a problem with this approach which Neil obviously understands. It is society's need to conserve fuel through better gas mileage. This Neil recognizes explicitly in his reviews of the Mini Cooper and Toyota's Prius and Scion.
He also brings the subject up in his now controversial article on the Pontiac G6 (For the record, the April 6, 2005 "Rumble Seat" column was titled, "An American idle: The Pontiac G6 is a sales flop. At General Motors, let the impeachment proceedings begin." A news story on GM's action is available from the Wall Street Journal at http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB111291173187801305,00.html)
Here's Neil's view on one GM failure:
GM utterly missed the boat on hybrid gas-electric technology and lobbied Congress not to raise fuel-economy standards on the grounds that meeting higher standards would divert funds from critical research in the ultimate propulsion technology, hydrogen fuel cells -- an argument that, shall we say, lacks authenticity. Today, GM has no hybrids of consequence on the street, while rivals Toyota and Honda are selling as many as they can build.
What is interesting about this statement is how old and obvious it is for people who read serious political commentary and for those who have been involved in the environmentalist movement. Dan Neil reveals himself as someone with a foot in two worlds, the aging adolescent with the love for fast cars and the person with a brain who realizes that the jig is almost up when it comes to burning gasoline as if it were free.
This is a moment in our history when all sorts of different threads are drawing together. While GM hisses over Dan Neil's critique, gas prices are above $2.50 a gallon for unleaded regular here in Los Angeles. Neil is kind of rubbing it in, but those giant SUV's are gathering dust on the dealers' lots while the GM exec's worry about hood ornaments.
Meanwhile, on the local "blog" scene, Kevin Drum at washingtonmonthly.com is sounding the trumpets about the predicted decline in worldwide oil production. If you are the worrying sort, you may be thinking that all these threads are related.
The theory that ties everything together is simple. If the world has some limited amount of total oil reserves, and if the use of oil by humans is on an ever-ascending curve, then eventually we will get to the point where we have used most of it up. Even before then, we will get to the point where all the world's oil-producing nations can't pump any faster, and at that point, as demand exceeds supply, the price goes through the sky.
The buzz word is "peak oil." It refers to that year when oil production can go no higher and begins to decline.
Oilfields have a defined pattern of productivity -- as they get older, their ability to produce oil tops off and then begins to drop, becoming less productive from year to year. Technological advances allow us to coax more oil from old fields, but that just speeds their ultimate drainage.
As dozens of major oilfields go through this pattern of discovery, maturation and senescence, the predictable result is that worldwide oil production will begin to fall. The results of declining oil production, skyrocketing prices and limited availability are economically catastrophic, but that is a subject for another discussion.
In the meantime, General Motors is fighting with the Los Angeles Times over whether the automotive section is being sufficiently sycophantic. The real question might be something different, more like whether or not there is going to be enough fossil fuel a couple of decades hence even to allow for the existence of daily newspapers, much less SUV's that get ten miles to the gallon.
The one thing that is most predictable is that in some near-future time, the economic viability of those 300-horsepower luxury sedans and 6.000-pound SUV's will disappear, and with it, a whole sector of that mechanical erotica that is the automotive review. It will really be too bad, because Dan Neil's columns are fun to read, but like our automotive economy, they may be ultimately unsustainable.