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SUV Debate between Jon Coifman and Thomas Firey - 2003-05-08


MR. BORGIDA:
Two groups, called the Detroit Project and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are putting pressure on automobile manufacturers, and they're doing so using television advertisements like this:

[From videotape, with Talking Heads singing in the background:]
ANNOUNCER: It is the first car built for the road and the world around it. It can take America to work in the morning without sending it to war in the afternoon, with a sophisticated braking system that stops our dependence on foreign oil. It gets 40 miles to every gallon and thousands of dollars saved at the pump. The only problem is Detroit won't build it.
[End of videotape.]

MR. BORGIDA:
Now joining us to talk about all this, Thomas Firey, Managing Editor of Regulation magazine with the Cato Institute, and Jon Coifman of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Thank you both for being here.

Mr. Coifman, let me begin with you, because I want to be sure, is there a suggestion in that advertisement that owning, liking, SUV's is somehow then translatable to winding up supporting war? There is sort of an underlying suggestion; I want to be clear about that. How does your organization feel about that?

MR. COIFMAN:
Well, the point of the ads really was to do two things, to begin raising solutions and moving this debate forward, to make a point that we can have better technology, better answers to this issue. It simply doesn't have to be this way.

Today's SUV's get worse gas mileage, emit more pollution, and are more dangerous to the people both inside of them and in front of them because of too many loopholes in the Federal law. And what we have been talking about is cleaning that up. We think, whether you are for or against, for example, the war in Iraq, that we can all agree that we don't want this country's foreign policy held hostage to the politics of oil, whether it's in the Middle East, in Venezuela, in Nigeria, and other more politically unstable parts of the globe.

MR. BORGIDA:
Mr. Firey, any concern perhaps that there is some leap of faith here between those who drive SUV's and -- I don't want to lead you down a primrose path here -- but is there a concern that there is a leap of faith there between those who drive and own SUV's and those who think that they're the reason for war?

MR. FIREY:
Well, there are three issues, and we want to be careful not to get them confused here. One issue is, is the increased use of gasoline by SUV's going to people that we don't want to have that money? There is a second question, should we be concerned about various safety effects of SUV's? And then the third one is the environmental effects of SUV's. And it's important to keep each of those straight, because they are very different and they will take us in different directions as we try to discuss them.

Speaking personally, I drive a Dodge Stratus, so I'm not an SUV driver personally. As a matter of fact, I kind of don't like them on the road just because I'm in a smaller car. But, that being said, let's look at each of those matters.

The first question, and the one that the Talking Heads commercial, or the Huffington Group commercial, that we just saw, is pushing this idea that this money is going to people that we don't want to have it. And that's a hard argument for them to make on the facts. It's a very emotional, powerful argument to make in the image. And like I said off camera, I like the Talking Heads music myself as a fan; it's a great commercial, but only 12 percent of U.S. oil comes out of the Persian Gulf.

As much of that oil comes from nations that we probably should be wanting to give money to, like Qatar, like Kuwait, as nations that we don't. And it probably helps us to keep terrorism in check to be giving money to those various countries to protect themselves, whereas we don't take any oil from Libya, we don't take any oil from Iran. We do take a little bit of oil from Iraq, but now that probably isn't as much of a discussion topic.

MR. BORGIDA:
Mr. Coifman, I want to give you some equal time. He had a substantial chunk of it.

MR. COIFMAN:
The point of these spots is to take this discussion to a level which says that this country can free itself from even the accusation, the concern, the criticism, and the debate, which was a vibrant one both here in the U.S. and certainly abroad, over what were the United States' motives in our Middle East policy, most recently the war in Iraq, the ongoing conflict with Halliburton suddenly taking over the oil industry in Baghdad. All of these concerns are things that we really don't think we need to be discussing, and that we can free ourselves from the chains of Middle East oil here with better technology in SUV's and pickup trucks and the light truck vehicles that we see taking up a much bigger part of the market in this country.

MR. BORGIDA:
Let's talk specifically, and I want to stay on point as they say in the public relations business, about Detroit and the auto industry. Because really what you're trying to suggest is that the auto industry has got to come to the plate here and be responsive in terms of energy resources and so on.

MR. COIFMAN:
Well, I'll tell you, we're a little concerned about Detroit and the U.S. auto industry losing ground and getting behind the ball here. We're seeing tremendous investments in clean, fuel efficient technology coming from Japan, particularly from Toyota, who has just introduced their second generation hybrid automobile. This is a gasoline/electric engine that never needs to be plugged in and can increase fuel economy 50 percent. We'll see that technology in a luxury SUV next year as well as in a couple of sedans now.

MR. BORGIDA:
Well, if see that technology in a luxury SUV next year, will this conversation be moot and irrelevant?

MR. FIREY:
This is a place where Jon and I probably agree on the antecedent but highly disagree on the final term. Jon and I probably both agree that Detroit will chase a dollar bill as far as they can no matter how far you throw it. And for that reason Jon is going to say that's why they don't want these hybrid technologies out there.

MR. BORGIDA:
We have a spokesman for the auto industry waiting in the wings -- just kidding. (Laughter.)

MR. FIREY:
I, on the other hand, believe that if Detroit can pull this off, if they can make these vehicles really work, and build vehicles that American consumers want -- which is the other half of the equation -- oh, my God, this will be the new mousetrap. Of course, they'll be turning it on as fast as they can.

MR. BORGIDA:
Final thoughts on this subject. What are Americans to be thinking as they see and hear and read about these controversies about the vehicles they're driving? Can they be more responsible as a matter of their own personal economics to the kind of automobile they buy? What's the average American to think on this point?

MR. COIFMAN:
Well, I'll tell you, just yesterday we learned from one of the largest automotive market research companies in the United States, from a new bit of research, that gas mileage was the number two concern among new car buyers last year in the United States. We certainly urge people to make the most fuel efficient vehicle choice that meets their needs, to get the soccer team around and to pick up things at the store. But really this is an issue that starts in Detroit and ends in Washington. It's about having tougher standards, that they're going to push the technology and deliver safer, cleaner, more efficient solutions.

MR. BORGIDA:
Can that happen, Mr. Firey?

MR. FIREY:
Well, David, let me push it back just a second.

MR. BORGIDA:
We have about a minute or so to go.

MR. FIREY:
Okay. The conversation doesn't start in Detroit and end in Washington. It starts and ends in people's homes and in their wallets and in their needs. SUV's are very effective in certain modes of transportation; they're not so effective perhaps in others. I myself like a very fuel-efficient car, but other people, they have three kids, they have bikes, they have dogs, they have to haul things around, everyone has to make the smart decision about what they have to accomplish with their vehicles, what gas mileage it has to get and what needs it has to satisfy.

There is tons of data out there, on your Web site, on my Web site, everywhere, claiming various things about these vehicles. Look it up. Find the facts. Read all the facts.

MR. BORGIDA:
Yes, I'm sure they will. And my job is to find the facts and wrap you both up. Thanks for being here with us, Thomas Firey of the Cato Institute, and Jon Coifman of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Thanks, both of you, for being here and joining this interesting debate about this subject. We appreciate it.

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