By Dave Cooke, Union of Concerned Scientists
Today, we are releasing a report documenting the long, sordid past of the auto industry, who has fought regulation tooth and nail at every turn. From pollution control to seatbelts and air bags to fuel economy, the industry has spent the vast majority of the past 7 decades doing whatever it can to wriggle out of government regulations, at the expense of the American public.
Cars have drastically improved, but not without a fight
There is no doubt that the cars built today are significantly improved over the vehicles from the 1950s:
- today’s safety standards require not just airbags and seatbelts but also features like crumple zones which help to minimize occupant injury;
- tailpipe pollution standards have dramatically reduced the emissions of soot and smog-forming pollutants like volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides; and
- fuel economy and global warming emissions standards have saved consumers about $4 TRILLION dollars in fuel, severely reducing both the demand for oil and impact on climate change.
It’s clear when put to the task, automotive engineers have been more than capable of meeting whatever challenge is laid in front of them, resulting in a tremendous positive impact for the public.
Unfortunately, the industry has a long history of putting its lobbyists to work instead, promoting misleading claims and interfering politically to weaken or delay the standards that protect the public.
Automotive Chicken Little and a “Can’t Do” Attitude
One of the most frustrating aspects of the volumes of research I did for this report was the sheer repetition of the arguments. According to the auto industry, any type of regulation would force them out of business…and yet they are still here. Here are a few examples:
“[I]f GM is forced to introduce catalytic converter systems across the board on 1975 models . . . it is conceivable that complete stoppage of the entire production could occur, with the obvious tremendous loss to the company, shareholders, employees, suppliers, and communities.” – Ernie Starkman (GM) in his push to weaken the 1975 tailpipe emissions standards put in place by the Clean Air Act.
Not only was Starkman wrong that catalytic converters would shut down GM, but they proved so popular that GM actually used them in its advertising in 1975!
“Many of the temporary standards are unreasonable, arbitrary, and technically infeasible. . . . [If] we can’t meet them when they are published we’ll have to close down.” – Henry Ford II (Ford), responding to the first motor vehicle safety standards.
Clearly, Ford did not have to close down. In fact, Ford proved more than capable of meeting these “unreasonable” requirements by using features like safety glass and seat belts, which are commonplace today.
“We don’t even know how to reach [35 miles per gallon by 2020], not in a viable way. [It] would break the industry.” — Susan Cischke (Ford), discussing the requirements of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) that have led to the strong standards we have today.
Not only have strong fuel economy standards not broken the industry, but today it is thriving, with three consecutive years of sales over 17 million, an historic first for automakers. And because of standards that drive improvements across all types of vehicles, we are not only on track to meet the requirements of EISA but doing so in spite of a growing share of SUVs and pick-ups.
Fighting the Science
Of course, even worse than the repetitive “sky is falling” attitude that has proven false at every turn is the assault on science that automakers have used in the past, seeking to eliminate policy action by diminishing either the solution or the problem:
“We believe that the potential impact of [fuel economy standards] on the global issue of planetary warming are [sic] difficult to demonstrate.” – Robert Liberatore (Chrysler)
Believe it or not, after James Hansen’s Congressional testimony in 1988, there was bipartisan support on the Hill to address climate change, including from transportation-related emissions. Mr. Liberatore used an argument straight out of today’s Heritage Foundation claiming that fuel economy standards in the United States won’t have an impact on a global problem. This flew in the face of science then, just as it does now.
“The effects of ozone are not that serious . . . what we’re talking about is a temporary loss in lung function of 20 to 30 percent. That’s not really a health effect.” – Richard Klimisch (American Automobile Manufacturers Association).
In 1996, the EPA was moving forward to strengthen air quality standards for ozone (related to smog) and soot (particulate matter). In order to push back on this solution, automakers campaigned against there even being a problem to address, claiming that a little loss in lung function wasn’t a big deal. Needless to say, the EPA ignored this ridiculousness and implemented stronger standards. However, even these stronger standards did not fully address the problem, pushing the Obama administration to move forward on strengthening the standards further still.
Breaking the Cycle?
After the Great Recession, automakers seemed to turn over a new leaf, working closely with the Obama administration to craft stringent fuel economy and emissions standards that would drive efficiency improvements across all types of vehicles, including SUVs and pick-up trucks.
“[The industry has] had a change of heart, but it’s fairly recent. We had data about consumers’ preferences about fuel economy, but we chose to ignore it; we thought it was an anomaly. But it’s by having a bias against fuel economy that we’ve put ourselves in the pickle we’re in now.” — Walter McManus (ex-GM), speaking about a shift in automaker thinking.
Unfortunately, this awakening seems to have been short-lived, as automakers are now urging the current administration to weaken the standards with the same types of tactics we’ve seen before:
- Automakers are using direct political influence, sending a letter to the Trump administration to withdraw EPA’s determination that the strong 2025 standards remain appropriate.
- Automakers are again exaggerating the facts, claiming widespread catastrophe if the EPA does not alter the standards based on a widely debunked study and ignoring the findings of a more thorough (albeit still conservative) report they themselves funded because it doesn’t fit their messaging.
- Industry is pushing to expand the midterm review to include lowering the 2021 standards while acknowledging that lowering the 2021 standards would have no impact on their product offerings and simply is a form of regulatory relief “any way we can get it” (Chris Nevers, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers).
Despite talking a good game about being “absolutely committed to improving fuel efficiency and reducing emissions for our customers” (Bill Ford, 2017), Ford and other automakers are engaging in the same intransigence we’ve seen over the past seven decades.
It’s time for automakers to end this multidecadal war against regulation and start siding with progress. To build back trust and leave this history behind, automakers must seize this opportunity and:
- support strong safety and emissions standards and keep the promises they made to the American people to build cleaner cars;
- distance themselves from trade groups that seek to undermine today’s standards, and make it clear that these groups do not speak for all automakers on issues of safety and the environment; and
- cease spreading disinformation about the standards and their impacts.