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Yau-Man For President

[Join me right here today at noon, when I'll discuss my magazine story on retail politics.]

One day last week I told my kids I was going to interview a presidential candidate. It would put a generous spin on things to say that they were modestly intrigued. But at the end of the day, I came home and delivered the real bombshell:

"I talked to Yau-Man."

They were most impressed. They always watch "Survivor." I don't watch much anymore other than to make a few ritual comments about how Colby got jobbed.

In any case, this season, Yau-Man Chan, a computer engineer, 54 years old, 5 foot 8 and 140 pounds when well-fed (he says), proved to be the most formidable competitor, and nearly won the million bucks. Much pivoted on a deal he made with Andria "Dreamz" Herd: Yau-Man won a pickup truck but gave it to Dreamz in exchange for a promise to give Yau-Man the immunity necklace later in the game. Dreamz went back on his word. But never mind all that: I called Yau-Man last week to ask about the pickup truck, because I was writing a piece for Outlook on the vehicles of the future.

He said "Survivor" hadn't changed his life much so far. He's been entertaining "offers," which he didn't detail, but said he was hesitant to accept them because he'd already had a taste of the Hollywood lifestyle and it wasn't really his thing. He runs the IT department for the College of Chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley.

I asked if he wanted the pickup truck even for a second.

"No way, no how, not even close," he said. "I look at it, and ... I have no particularly emotional attachment to it. I'm going to use it as a bargaining chip to get to the next few levels. "

He doesn't understand the American fascination with huge vehicles:

"Unless you have a business where you need to haul 15 tons around, I don't see why you need something like that," he said. he said sometimes, when he's doing yardwork, he wishes he had a pickup. But there's a solution: "I go rent one for a day."

His wife drives a Honda Civil hybrid. And if you've read to the end of my story you know he drives a Prius.

"It's like those huge hummers. I don't understand them. Why?"

Here's the top of my story:

It's been a rough stretch of road for the U.S. auto industry. Last Monday, we learned that Daimler had sold Chrysler for scrap metal. President Bush vowed to start regulating tailpipe emissions. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced new low-carbon fuel standards, a firm shove to the entire transportation sector. And gas prices hit an all-time high -- bad news for carmakers that keep cranking out gas guzzlers. But probably the worst moment came the week before last, on the reality TV show "Survivor," when Yau-Man gave the pickup truck to Dreamz.

Here's what happened: Yau-Man Chan, a 54-year-old computer engineer, had won one of the show's "reward challenges." The prize: a hulking, 350-horsepower Ford Super Duty F-350 pickup that looks like it's capable of towing your average volcano.

Yau-Man took one look and promptly gave it to a rival player, Andria "Dreamz" Herd, asking only for some strategic help at the next "tribal council." It was a shocking move by Yau-Man. But now we can report to the nation the real reason he didn't want the truck:

"I would disappear if I sat inside."

He's talking by phone from his home in Northern California.

"It's not my lifestyle," he says. And moreover: "I don't think it would fit in any parking spaces."

In fact, he needs an F-350 the way he needs his own personal oil tanker. Chan works on a college campus. At Berkeley. What, he's going to bomb around in something that looks like it eats Volkswagen Beetles for a snack? I doubt he could even sell it in Berkeley. The city council has no doubt banned oversized pickups, along with red meat and nuclear weapons.

And yet Detroit keeps disgorging monster trucks, souped-up sedans, overpowered SUVs and Hummers so brawny and masculine that merely sitting in the driver's seat makes hair sprout on your back.

Amazingly, people keep buying them. Never mind everything you've read about the fashionableness of hybrids and the new electric cars scooting along California highways. We still like big, fast, sexy, high-performance cars that allow us to make vroom-vroom noises as we rocket to the video store. Yau-Man Chan may well be the car buyer of the future -- a role model for us all -- but most of us are still burning gas like there's no tomorrow.

Some Outlook out-takes:

Robert Socolow, Princeton professor: "Such a huge portion of what we think about cars is a matter of taste and fashion...We've used the technology for power and weight and convenience, and we have a floating home these days with great music systems."

Marc Ross on electric cars: "From a technologist's point of view, we don't have the battery yet. With an electric car, you're still talking about future technology." [I think what he means is: The very best batteries remain too expensive to be commercially practical.]

Here's something I really wish had been in the story, but it came in after we were going to press: Wes Sherwood, spokesman for Ford, told me that the company sold 20,000 Escape hybrids last year.

And 800,000 F-series pickups.

By Joel Achenbach  |  May 21, 2007; 6:53 AM ET
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