Ho-Hum Luxury

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2007

Go back in time a century and envision Ford's Model T. It had an internal combustion engine in front, drove through the rear wheels, rode on what amounted to inflated balloons, and had headlights and windshield wipers.

The 2007 Lexus RX350 is much the same. In fact, when you think about it, the basic vehicle hasn't changed all that much since that Model T. In a century where technological development ran rampant in our world, the automobile has not come a long way, baby.

All vehicles should be much better than they are. Compare vehicle advancement to what has happened in other fields. In just the past 50 years, we've gone from party-line telephones to wireless cell phones with cameras, GPS maps and e-mail access. Computers filled entire rooms 50 years ago; today you take your Tablet PC to the library and tap the entire world's knowledge with a few keystrokes. That's progress. Think of what has happened with television, movies, air conditioning, audio systems, microwave cooking.

Now think of today's vehicle, the well-respected Lexus RX350. This Lexus sport utility is state-of-the-art. But muffle the applause.

Its highway mileage-the best it can do-is 25 mpg. The Ford Model T got 25 mpg in 1908.

The Lexus rides on balloons, has an internal combustion engine up front, drives the rear wheels, and has headlights and windshield wipers. Its major advance seems to be what it calls "adaptive headlights"-and they are indeed marvelous. Headlights represent one of the improvements in recent years that set today's vehicles apart from those of the Model T era.

Adaptive headlights contain beams that turn as the wheels turn, lighting areas the vehicle will soon enter. They are so marvelous, so obvious a need, that a driver smiles his or her way through every curve at night. But new? An advancement?

Ever heard of Preston Tucker? George Lucas thought so much of this auto-making maverick that he made a 1988 movie called Tucker: A Man and His Dream.

Back in the mid-'40s, Tucker designed an affordable family car that was aerodynamic, had a horizontally-opposed engine (as is used by Porsche and Subaru) in the rear, seat belts, a pop-out windshield, disc brakes and hydraulic valves. It put every Detroit offering to shame.

But perhaps most memorable about the Tucker Torpedo was a third headlight, a Cyclops eye, in the front center of the car. That headlight turned with the car, to illuminate approaching areas on curves.

Tucker made 50 Torpedoes in 1948 before the Big Three used all their influence and muscle to close his factory, leaving him bankrupt. And this is not the only example of the Big Three stifling progress. It's a long, sorry history worth your research time before you spend your money.

Our tested Lexus, at $45,183, rides on today's better tires (but where are the non-pneumatic ones?). It has a GPS navigation screen and a backup camera, neither pioneered by an automaker. It has the same inadequate windshield wipers of cars a century old (where is Acura's demonstrated air-blow system that shoots away raindrops?). Radical change just hasn't happened. It's been thwarted.

Numerous advances in energy that could have advanced the automobile have been quashed by Big Oil and Big Auto. The electric Tesla car will be manufactured by a new automaker (Tesla Motors, Inc. in California), not Detroit or an overseas company. Diesel cars are offered elsewhere, but not in America. And electric-gasoline hybrids have been pioneered by Honda and Toyota, not a Big Three company.

In fact, there's a hybrid Lexus RX that I'd recommend over this model. For a bit more money, you'll get all the luxury, safety and convenience that Lexus can pack into family sport utility, but you'll do the earth and all of us a favor by not slurping the last of the earth's petroleum in huge gulps.

Don't think I'm going to let parent Toyota off the hook for squashing innovation. In 2001, Toyota demonstrated a car called the Eco Spirit that got a touted 100 mpg. The press trumpeted it. Buyers awaited it. Toyota inexplicably shelved it.

We could do things the right way, but quarterly shareholder returns are more important than investing in the future. Innovation costs money.

But innovation and excellence eventually expand any bottom line. And Toyota's bottom line, bolstered by its innovative hybrids, will soon surpass Detroit's. The Japanese automaker that produces these Lexus vehicles is expected to pass both Ford Motor Company and General Motors this year in total vehicle sales. J.D. Power and other surveyors of automotive quality tell us why: Toyota (and other foreign-based automakers) makes better vehicles.

Shed no tears for Detroit. I won't. Instead, I'll remember what Preston Tucker told the jury in summation at his trial, not long after mighty America had bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"If big business closes the door on the little guy with the new idea, we're not only closing the door on progress, but we're sabotaging everything we fought for, everything that the country stands for," he said. "And one day we're going to find ourselves at the bottom of the heap, instead of king of the hill, and we'll have no idea how we got there, buying our radios and our cars from our former enemies."

People laughed at that in 1948.

Today, no American can find humor in Tucker's accurate assessment of the future that became our present. 

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