Ford Looks for Traction at Auto Show
Company Courts Congressional Affection
Typically a carnival-like atmosphere, last weeks Washington Auto Show was a somber affair, indicative of the overall slumping car industry that has come hat-in-hand to lawmakers recently looking for a lifeline.
The Thursday afternoon crowd was light, the swag paltry and the long faces of credit-starved consumers dragging down the vibe at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
At one exhibit, a convention performer, hands-free microphone strapped to his head, rattled off specs for GMCs new Sierra hybrid truck, as a sign-language interpreter followed along. Not a single soul watched the presentation, undoubtedly one of many audience-less gigs the duo performed during the shows five-day run.
Walking through the convention hall late last week, top Ford Motor Co. lobbyist Bruce Andrews acknowledges that this normally festive showcase of Detroits finest is a ho-hum affair. And after all, why wouldnt it be? The economy is in the dumps, available credit languishes, and no ones in the mood to buy.
Its much more subdued than in times past, Andrews said, as he ambled through the convention hall last Thursday, a reporter in tow.
At the end of the day, the shows are done by the local dealers, but the dealerships are suffering, the workers are suffering because of the economy.
As Andrews worked the floor at the show, lawmakers a mile down the road continued to debate stimulus legislation they hope will jump-start the economy.
Ford and other domestic automakers are hoping for a big boost from the legislation, ultimately expected to be loaded up with billions of dollars worth of taxpayer money to incentivize domestic auto sales and infrastructure upgrades.
Specifically, Andrews said his company, which passed on taking a bridge loan from the government late last year, continues to eye a tax credit that will entice consumers to trade in their gas guzzlers for more eco-friendly domestic cars.
The Ford lobbyist said Germany and other countries have had success with similar programs and is selling it on the Hill as immediate stimulus.
The next item on Fords stimulus wish list is getting the government to underwrite the development of the powerful batteries the company will need to power its new fleet. Right now, he said the United States lags behind Asian governments.
We dont want to trade independence for foreign oil from the Middle East for a dependence for foreign batteries from the Far East China, Japan, Korea have made huge investments. Their governments have been leading the way, Andrews said. Theyve identified batteries as a critical technology, and theyve invested billions of dollars making their countries leaders.
And what were saying is its one thing to just to assemble the batteries here, but we really want the production here, Andrews continued. We really need to have battery cell production here in the U.S. … We think thats the next frontier.
Andrews said Ford itself doesnt want to go into battery production but that lawmakers must provide financial sweeteners for other businesses to risk the leap.
As of late last week, he said, Senate and House lawmakers continued to be sympathetic, but Members of both parties are still on the fence, and a final bill is not expected for perhaps a week or more.
These are all very good, important things for helping invest in the future, but in the short term we need to get people back to the showrooms and buying cars, Andrews said. The sales numbers, when they came out a few days ago, were just terrible.
But as the only domestic auto company that appears to be on relatively solid footing and that conspicuously did not take part in the multibillion-dollar auto bailout Andrews suggested that Ford may have the edge when approaching lawmakers.
Not having that bankruptcy cloud hanging over its head, particularly during this years Washington, D.C., auto show, provides a good way to talk about all the good things that weve done, Andrews said.
And while the public may perhaps stay home, the Ford lobbyist, a Democrat, said interest in the local show by lawmakers and the White House has been unprecedented.
Theres much more interest among policymakers, he said. The number of senior administration officials who showed up is much higher than in past years. … People wanted to come out and see the technologies.
And once the stimulus package is finally in the rearview mirror, Andrews said his company, which employs nearly 90,000 people, plans to work with lawmakers on probable climate change legislation, something the industry successfully dodged for years under the protection of former Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.).
Andrews admitted that Dingells departure obviously is very hard, and it will make our job different, but said now-Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is a very thoughtful guy.
Were going to have to go in and show him our stuff, he said.