Ford Looks for Traction at Auto Show

Company Courts Congressional Affection

Posted February 6, 2009 at 4:45pm

Typically a carnival-like atmosphere, last week’s 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 GMC’s 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 show’s 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 Detroit’s finest is a ho-hum affair. And after all, why wouldn’t it be? The economy is in the dumps, available credit languishes, and no one’s in the mood to buy.

“It’s 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 Ford’s 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 don’t 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. “They’ve identified batteries as a critical technology, and they’ve invested billions of dollars making their countries leaders.”

“And what we’re saying is it’s 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 that’s the next frontier.”

Andrews said Ford itself doesn’t 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 year’s Washington, D.C., auto show, provides “a good way to talk about all the good things that we’ve 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.

“There’s 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 Dingell’s 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.”

“We’re going to have to go in and show him our stuff,” he said.