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Ford has promising leadership

As chairman of the Ford Motor Co., William Clay Ford Jr. said all the right things about the environment. As its new chief executive officer, he'll have the power to put his words into action. His challenge is to prove that an enlightened executive can turn Ford into a responsible corporate citizen.

Unlike many other corporate executives, Ford not only recognizes how his business harms the environment; he admits it and says he wants to fix the problems. His tenure offers real hope for progress on issues like global warming.

Because he is chief executive of the country's second-largest automaker, his statements and decisions have measurable impact on the industry. As chairman, Ford pulled the company's head from the sand in December 1999 by quitting the Global Climate Coalition, a cabal of polluting companies that denied the scientific research proving global warming. Within four months, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler also left.

He also pushed the company to publish "corporate citizenship" reports. This year's acknowledged that Ford's vehicles and factories annually emit 400-million metric tons of carbon dioxide, adding to global warming. This is a devastating admission, but such corporate honesty is a crucial first step in educating shareholders about the corporation's environmental impact.

Perhaps most promising is Ford's aggressive leadership in making the company's commitment, announced last year, to improve fuel economy in its SUVs by 25 percent by 2005. Improving gas mileage is the single biggest step American automakers can take to curb global warming. Moreover, it will save American consumers money at the gas pump and reduce the nation's dependence on oil.

The key test for Ford, however, is how much he boosts fuel economy across the entire Ford fleet, not just in SUVs. Because Ford has failed to improve the fuel economy of its cars and trucks sufficiently, and because it now sells a higher proportion of gas-guzzling trucks than it did 17 years ago, its new vehicles get fewer miles per gallon, on average, than the ones it built in 1984.

It can do much better. Modern technology for engines, transmissions and aerodynamics can help Ford achieve an average fuel economy of 40 miles per gallon for its cars, pickups and SUVs, saving the United States almost 1-million barrels of oil per day _ more than half as much as the country imports from Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, old-school Ford executives have left this technology sitting on the shelf. Ford's cars currently lack many of the improvements, like variable valve timing and continuously variable transmissions, already available on more efficient cars. And Ford's trucks lack some of the technology already on Ford's cars.

But Ford, like most executives, resists government intrusion into corporate decisionmaking. He has long argued that improvements in fuel economy should be left to manufacturers and has personally lobbied members of Congress against efforts to make cars and SUVs go farther on a gallon of gas.

Ford has a compelling economic incentive to implement his vision of corporate citizenship: If he fails to do so, his company will lose market share to imports. Both Toyota and Honda are putting clean, gasoline-electric hybrid cars on the road, and Americans are snapping them up. Today, the waiting list to buy a 50-mile-per-gallon Toyota Prius is three months. Japanese automakers aren't just selling cars, they're selling a vision of the future through modern technology. If Ford doesn't sell that vision, its shareholders could lose their money and its employees could lose their jobs.

Of course, like any large corporation, Ford has enormous inertia. It can't be expected to start churning out superefficient vehicles next Tuesday. But the clock is ticking. Now more than ever, Americans recognize the need to break free of our oil dependence. Ford faces a difficult challenge, and his instincts are admirable. His leadership could show that it is everyone's patriotic duty to drive a fuel-efficient car.

Daniel F. Becker is director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program.

New York Times