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Ford buys abroad: Slap in the face or good business?

Ford Motor Co. owes the American people an explanation for its decision to use a Japanese supplier for a key powertrain component on an upcoming “clean” vehicle.

On one level, Ford’s move can be seen as a slap in the face. For the past eight years, Ford and the rest of the U.S. auto industry have worked with the federal government to develop clean vehicle technology. The $1.5 billion program funded with tax dollars, called the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, was conceived to help U.S. automakers and suppliers compete. But now that Ford is about to produce its first mass-market hybrid-electric vehicle, a 2003 Ford Escape, Ford has picked an offshore company to supply the transaxle.

On another level — it’s a global economy. Auto companies need to tap it to get the best technology and price.

Both views have merit. To settle the issue, we need to know why Ford picked Aisin AW Co. as its supplier. Congress and the White House should demand answers as they decide the future of PNGV in coming months.

Was price the issue? Was it superior technology? Was Ford unable to find a U.S. maker of the transaxle?

Granted, PNGV is all about pre-competitive research. It does not require Ford or General Motors or DaimlerChrysler to buy anything from anyone. But deals such as this one must be carefully weighed exceptions to the rule.

The goal of PNGV is to use the best of U.S. resources — its research labs, automakers, suppliers — to find answers to the nation’s environmental challenges. If companies are going to be part of PNGV, they must respect the spirit of the program.

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