It was a green-themed week at the New York Auto Show. Speaking at the show on Wednesday, Ford (NYSE: F ) CEO Alan Mulally touched on a number of green-energy themes, urging the U.S. government to do more to support the development of better battery technology and calling, as President Obama has, for a comprehensive overall national energy policy.
Why tough green rules are good for business
Mulally's call for comprehensive national energy standards isn't necessarily a sign that the auto-industry hero is secretly some sort of crunchy eco-hippie. Rather, as Mulally and other auto executives have been saying for some time, having clear and broadly-applicable efficiency and emissions standards that are widely known years in advance makes it much easier for the automakers to meet those standards.
Here's why: The auto industry differs from most consumer-product manufacturing in that product lead times are measured in years, not weeks or months. The calendar might say that it's still early in 2010, but it's a safe bet that development of 2014-model-year products (and beyond) is already underway at all of the major automakers.
Without clear rules that are known well in advance, an automaker -- seeing high gas prices today, say -- might plan a whole line of little fuel-efficient cars to hit the market three years out… only to find, three years later, that gas has crashed to $0.80 a gallon and their key competitors are selling all the high-margin SUVs they can crank out. You see the problem.
Ford's not sitting around waiting for the government, though. Along with a brand-new Lincoln hybrid, the company -- together with a live-via-satellite appearance by none other than Steve Ballmer -- announced an expansion of their technology partnership with Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) . Having already collaborated on Ford's SYNC in-car infotainment system, the two giants are going further with an integration of Microsoft's "Hohm" cloud-based home energy management system into upcoming electric Ford vehicles.
Imagine a future where your car will be able to tell your house that it needs to be recharged -- CCing you, of course, if you like. Sounds wild, doesn't it? It's already under development.
Would you buy the first Chevy Volt?
The old rule was to avoid the first examples of an all-new model -- better to wait a bit and make sure the manufacturer had worked out all of the bugs. That might be less of a worry nowadays -- but with a radically-new vehicle like the upcoming Chevrolet Volt, buying an early model might still be a daunting proposition.
But apparently nothing daunts the White House, as the Obama administration announced on Wednesday that they would buy the first 100 Volts made. Is this an expression of confidence in American technology? A statement of support for green automaking? Or simply a gesture to be expected from the folks who are -- don't forget -- General Motors' largest investor? We'll have to wait and see.
Don't worry about that Ford stock price dip
Ford was in the news elsewhere this week, and not just because new-Ford sales are continuing their torrid pace. The United Auto Workers' retiree health care trust, taking advantage of Ford's soaring stock price, auctioned off 362.4 million Ford stock warrants that they received when the historic VEBA health-care trust was established in 2007.
The warrants -- which sold for $5 each -- give the holder the right to buy a share of Ford common stock for $9.20. As $14.20 (the exercise price plus the warrant price) represents a bit of a premium from the current price level, this reflects some optimism about Ford's future -- notwithstanding the dilution-driven dip seen in the stock's price on Wednesday. But don't sweat that dip too much -- Ford's continued success should continue to drive the stock price higher.
Roewe, roewe, roewe your … Android?
Ever heard of Roewe? The Chinese brand is the successor to the old British Rover marque, acquired along with MG several years ago by the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation. Roewe's new 350 model is a trim four-door destined for the Chinese domestic market ... with an interesting twist: It's the first car to employ Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android operating system.
Better known as an OS for cheap PCs and cell phones, Roewe's Android implementation is the backbone of a trick DVD system that will give passengers (but hopefully not the driver!) real-time traffic info, web access, and even online chatting capabilities, according to reports. It's an interesting idea, one that should play well in the Google-mad Chinese market.
Toyota keeps it going
Speaking of torrid sales paces, Toyota (NYSE: TM ) announced on Wednesday that its unprecedented incentive-fueled price war will last for at least another month. Bob Carter, the head of Toyota's U.S. sales arm, told reporters at the New York International Auto Show that the company would continue to offer interest-free financing and discounted leases at least through April, possibly longer. They may even up the ante by making free maintenance -- things like oil changes that aren't usually covered by warranties -- standard for Toyota customers for some period of time.
It will be interesting to see how Honda (NYSE: HMC ) , Toyota's chief rival and a company not known for aggressive incentives or worries about short-term market-share blips, will respond to this ongoing challenge. Honda did -- reluctantly, one senses -- step up last week with some lease deals, but if Toyota finds itself wedded to incentives for an extended time, Honda may feel compelled to come up with a more dramatic response.
Read more about the ongoing global automotive shakeout: