It has been argued here before that if the government wants to be serious about improving fuel economy, all it has to do is boost the tax on gasoline. The revenue generated could be rebated to lower-income drivers who are truly disadvantaged or invested in mass transit. The auto companies aren't going to argue for such a tax because it would give them a black eye with consumers. And the government won't do it either, because of its anti-tax bias.
But Friedman, using his column as a bully pulpit, could argue for such a tax with impunity. And it would be a whole lot more effective than perpetuating the old myth about the ignorant luddites in Detroit who are withholding the small, fuel-sipping cars that Americans really want to buy.
But he has argued for a tax on gasoline. Here is a quote from his column back in February:
But at the same time, we have to impose a tax that creates a floor price of $3.50 a gallon for gasoline — forever. This is also about leverage. It says to all the parties: we are going to conserve enough gasoline and spur enough clean alternatives to fossil fuels that no matter what you all do in the Middle East, we will not depend on you for energy.
Another thing I take issue with is his statement that U.S. automakers and Americans don't need to change their habits:
That's wrong...and wrong. Forcing people to buy more efficient cars by ordering car companies to make them is like forcing people to lose weight by banning food companies from selling Big Macs and pizzas. The reason Americans consume so much gasoline is that they like their big pickup trucks, SUVs, and V-8 engines. The reason the automakers make them is because people want to buy them.
He also tries to defend them by saying:
American manufacturers DO build fuel-efficient cars but Americans don't buy them. Ford (Charts, Fortune 500) is currently offering cut-rate financing on the 2008 Escape Hybrid, while GM (Charts, Fortune 500) is subsidizing the smallest car in its lineup, the Chevy Aveo. And GM can brag all it wants about having more models - 30 of them - than any other manufacturer that get more than 30 miles per gallon on the highway, but it gets precious little credit for it in the marketplace.
The reason people (like me) don't buy them is because the quality is not as good as a Honda or Toyota -- even if it is cheaper. Furthermore, the Aveo's fuel economy is not as good as the Honda Civic or Fit or Toyota Echo or Yaris. (I know, I checked.)
Don't believe me? Here is the fuel economy for the Chevy Aveo:
And the Honda Civic:
You need only look at Consumer Reports or a similar opinion poll by consumers on what kind of car they want to buy to know that GM's economy cars have a ways to go in terms of quality. And as for the Escape Hybrid? It's hybrid engine is designed not to increase its gas mileage but instead to increase its power. That misses the point of hybrid technology.