DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. and General Motors must liberate their engineering and scientific talent if they are to survive, consumer advocate Ralph Nader asserts. But he's not optimistic about their ability to do so.
Speaking to the Automotive News World Congress, Nader called the two U.S. automakers "companies of huge bulk, shrinking to be sure, but very autocratic, very hierarchical." Their focus on finance and marketing emphasizes short-term gain and stifles technological innovation, he said.
In an interview with Automotive News before his speech, Nader said both GM and Ford need new leadership. In his speech later, he suggested that the automakers' CEOs be "outsourced."
Nader's 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, assailed the U.S. auto industry's record on vehicle safety. The expose led to landmark federal safety laws.
Compared to the industry's leaders at the time he wrote his book, Nader said, today's domestic auto executives "are just about the same, except they're more congenial."
He added: "The lack of a learning curve is what is so astonishing. The structure of the auto companies cannot take advantage of simple realities and simple opportunities."
Tougher federal regulation, Nader said, could force domestic automakers to pursue meaningful innovation in such areas as crash prevention and rollover protection. That could help them close the technology gap with their Japanese competitors, he said.
Instead, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "is now a consulting agency to Detroit.
NHTSA is the White House. Federal regulation is essentially dead."
Nader, a presidential candidate in 2000 and 2004, said a Ford ad campaign that stresses corporate innovation reflects "ephemeral hopes."
Engineers founded Ford and Chrysler Corp., Nader said. U.S. automakers experimented with airbag technology as early as the 1950s, he noted. And former Chrysler Corp. Chairman Lee Iacocca, who initially disdained safety technology, later made TV commercials that extolled airbags, Nader said.
Nader offered a four-point agenda for U.S. automakers:
1. Respect suppliers, which he said have become major forces for safety innovation.
2. Place a higher priority on vehicle safety.
3. Rethink globalization and free trade.
4. Eliminate impediments to innovation.
Responding to a question after his speech, Nader said he does not own a car. He called that decision "a small contribution to decongesting" traffic in Washington, D.C., where he lives.
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