Stop Your Grousing, Auto Makers, and Get the Gases Out

Carl Zichella is the regional staff director of the California-Nevada-Hawaii field office of the Sierra Club.

The auto industry howled when Gov. Gray Davis signed California’s landmark global warming control bill. Litigation to overturn the new law, which restricts automobile emissions of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases, was threatened before his signature was dry.

For auto industry observers, there was a sense of deja vu about this hysterical response. Every time the government has required new safety or efficiency standards, auto makers have claimed that the result would be financial ruin, the elimination of thousands of jobs and the loss of consumer choice.

The truth is that the industry was wrong at every turn, and it is wrong now. Car makers, instead of suing to overturn this much-needed law, should get busy complying with it. No new technology needs to be developed.


This is the industry that fought turn signals, seat belts and safety glass. Henry Ford II called laminated windshields, padded interiors and collapsible steering wheels “unreasonable, arbitrary and technically unfeasible.”

When Congress required auto manufacturers to build cleaner cars in 1973, the industry response was hyperbolic. “If GM is forced to introduce catalytic converter systems across the board ... it is conceivable that complete stoppage of the entire production could occur,” warned a GM vice president. The company easily complied, consumers benefited and GM suffered no appreciable hardship.

In 1974, a Ford official told a congressional committee that “corporate average fuel economy”--CAFE--standards would “result in a Ford product line consisting either of all sub-Pinto-sized vehicles or some mix of vehicles ranging from sub-sub-compact to perhaps a Maverick.” That couldn’t have been more wrong.

According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, from 1977 to 1983 American-built cars increased in efficiency by seven miles per gallon. From 1977 through 1985, the U.S. gross domestic product rose 27% while oil imports fell by 42%. OPEC lost an eighth of its market. Few public policies have ever been such a resounding success. Vehicle choice expanded while oil prices declined.

The sky isn’t falling for auto manufacturers, but the planet is getting warmer, and the consequences for California are severe. If the snowpack in the Sierra declines, bitter competition for water will result since about 70% of California drinking water originates there.

Further, farmland will become more arid and sea levels will rise, reducing food production and flooding coastal cities. Forests will shrink and some of the most valuable wildlife habitat on Earth will vanish or be altered.


The good news is that some simple solutions are at hand. This year Ford sponsored a “Future Truck” competition for university engineering students to build more-efficient sport utility vehicles. If you believe the industry’s rhetoric, you’d think that SUVs will be abolished. But Ford’s “Future Truck” contestants showed the ridiculousness of this charge.

Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this year modified a Ford Explorer to get the equivalent of 38 mpg. Others built a GMC Suburban that emits about half the carbon dioxide of the production version. More-efficient vehicles mean less CO2 emissions. You don’t need to require mileage standards--something that federal law forbids the state to do--to get these benefits; all the state needs to do is require the auto makers use the best technology available.

If university students can do this, why can’t the Big Three? Ford boasts that it plans to introduce a hybrid gas-electric SUV in 2003. This model would meet the standard far ahead of the new law’s generous 2009 deadline.

Instead of suing California, auto makers should do what is right and comply with the law.