Playing Catchup: America’s Hail Mary Strategy

Autopia notes that Japan’s first high speed rail opened 43 years ago today, with maximum speeds of 187mph. Since then, they’ve been dilligently expanding it year by year. Will there be any high-speed rail in the U.S. 43 years from today? Color me skeptical. But this is what happens when you forgo the small updates and go for the Hail Mary.

Of course, going for the Hail Mary is pretty deeply ingrained in U.S culture, isn’t it? We like to put things off as long as possible, and then jump in with a big, grand, messy scheme at the 11th hour. Think of hurricane Katrina: it would have cost far less in terms of both dollars and human suffering to have built the levees properly 60 or 80 years ago. Instead, we’re going to whip out the credit card and spend $100B or more cleaning up the mess.

But no industry is more fond of the Hail Mary than American auto makers. You may recall that, back in the mid-1990s, when the U.S. auto industry was suffering and we were convinced that “Japan, Inc.” was going to come in and take over America, the best-selling car in the U.S. was not the Camry or the Accord it was… the Ford Taurus. The Taurus was the best-selling car in America from 1992-1996.

But instead of making incremental improvements to the Taurus, Ford let it atrophy, and moved on to building high-margin SUVs like the Explorer. Meanwhile, the Toyota Camry took the best-selling mantle from Ford in 1997 and has retained it, I believe, ever since. Toyota relentlessly improves the Camry, tweaking it every year to make it better.

Ford, of course, went for the Hail Mary. After letting the Taurus die a slow, ignominous death, they’re bring it back this year. Well, sort of. They’re taking the crappy, poorly-selling Ford Five Hundred and renaming it the Taurus, and then they’re goinig to take the crappy, poorly-selling Ford Freestyle and rename it the “Taurus X.” Having thoroughly milked 1960s nostalgia with the redesigned Mustang, one must assume that Ford is betting on a wave 1980s and 1990s nostalgia with the new Taurus. But of course, it’s just lipstick on a pig.

Oh, and one more thing interesting thing from that Wikipedia article:

The first generation Taurus was launched in 1986 to strong fanfare and sales, and is a very important figure in the history of the American automotive industry. Ford had a range of rear wheel drive cars while Chrysler and General Motors was making most of their cars front wheel drive. … The aerodynamic design of the Taurus was not purely cosmetic, however. Its aerodynamic shape made the car more fuel efficient, allowing Ford to meet the more stringent CAFE standards applied by the United States government. The design proved successful and helped to launch Ford into a new era of prosperity. The Taurus ultimately led to an American automobile design revolution; Chrysler and General Motors developed aero designed cars in order to capitalize on the Taurus’ success.

That’s right, kids: heavy-handed, big-government intervention, in the form of CAFE standards, fostered American innovation and launched Ford into “a new era of prosperity.” Had the government continued to increase the CAFE standards, that era might have continued to the present day. Remember that next time Detroit whines that stricter fuel efficiency standards will kill the American auto industry.