The Green Message Behind Ford's SUV Mea Culpa

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Talk about biting the hand that feeds you: On Thursday, the scion of the Ford Motor Company made the startling admission that sport utility vehicles could pose a serious risk other motorists and (gasp!) the environment. No one was surprised by the facts themselves, mind you, but the source of the admission caught some industry analysts and environmentalists off guard. Ford, which has based its spectacular recovery and a hefty proportion of its profits on a hugely successful sport utility vehicle line, seemed to be shooting itself in the accelerator foot by pointing an unequivocally accusatory finger at its own products. Could Thursday's announcement be the beginning of the end for the Sierra Club's nemesis?

Not exactly. While company chairman William Clay Ford is obviously interested in bolstering Ford's budding reputation as the "green" carmaker, he's hardly blind to profit. Ford will continue to build its giants, Mr. Ford declared Thursday, including the hulking Ford Excursion, because the market demand still exists. Off in the wings, however, the company will investigate ways to make SUVs less toxic — and will also research more manageable (i.e., smaller) alternatives to the ubiquitous monster trucks. The threat of increased gas prices, after all, continues to hang over the car industry, and a sharp increase in rates followed by a demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars would expose automakers' weak spot for the highly profitable (and gas-guzzling) SUVs. So, with one eye trained firmly on public opinion, Ford will persevere as an innovator by adopting a proactive stance toward environmental and safety issues. Because in the end, Mr. Ford told the New York Times, if automakers continue to ignore the hazards inherent in SUVs, they run the very real risk of becoming the new tobacco industry: Recalcitrant, hated by the public and hemorrhaging millions in the form of legal fees and loss of business.