New mileage standards for automobiles were long overdue

Published 7:20 pm Thursday, May 21, 2009

President Obama introduced a proposal for new standards for gas mileage for automobiles on Tuesday, a proposal that, in my opinion, is long overdue.

I believe, in fact, that we should have raised standards in the past at a rate that would have brought us today to the level that Obama is proposing we reach by 2016.

What I really resent most, though, is the fact that government has to set such standards. The American automobile industry has had warnings for years that fuel economy and the environment were increasing areas of concern for Americans. The first clue was the popularity of the Volkswagen Beetle.

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Oddly, a study ordered by Robert McNamara when he was at Ford Motor Co. first made note of that. The study discovered that not only were Americans who couldn’t afford the more expensive American cars buying Beetles, but so were many wealthier Americans who just were not enamored with the gas-guzzling American behemoths coming out of Detroit. McNamara, more famously identified with the failed Edsel, a project that he inherited and hated and ultimately killed when he was at Ford, ordered the development of the Ford Falcon, which died after he left the company to become Secretary of Defense under President John Kennedy.

As the Beetle faded because its engine couldn’t be made to meet environmental standards, along came the long line of Japanese cars, the Toyotas, Hondas, Subarus, Nissans and many other brands that now dominate the American market, along with a few other rising Asian brands. American efforts at economical automobiles mainly have been those that are what I call oh-by-the-way cars, those models that dealers show you only after you bypass the ritzy gas-guzzlers on the way to the door at a foreign-car dealership that actually features gas-sipping models.

Suddenly those oh-by-the-way cars such as the Ford Focus and the Chevrolet Cobalt dominate most of the advertising put out by Detroit. When was the last time you saw an ad for a GMC Suburban or a Ford Expedition? Ever notice how that now when you see ads for even larger cars they concentrate on how good their gas mileage is?

Why has it taken so long for Detroit to get the message? At one time, the American automakers were in a position to have it all, but they became victims of their own charisma.

Who could ignore the muscle cars and limousines they were putting out from the 1950s on up until just before the big crash a few months ago? Everyone wasn’t buying their cars, which were a significant and growing number of Americans who were becoming more concerned about gas mileage and pollution. However, the car guys who ran the Detroit companies could see only the people who were buying their gas-guzzlers. Detroit produced a few economy models, but didn’t push them. They remained the oh-by-the-way models for dealers to bring out as a last resort.

Personally, I think the problem goes deeper than that in Detroit, for I believe the American automobile manufacturers have actually been a drag on research and innovation that could have produced the types of cars they love, but could have done so with engines that had significantly better gas mileage and emitted significantly less pollution, that even could have run on alternative fuels and forced their development by the energy companies. Because Detroit wasn’t pushing the bubble, the other guys pushed it only as far as required to stay ahead of Detroit, which bothered to only play catch up in those areas with the rest of the world — except when Congress required that they do more as is now occurring.

The difference between now and that time before the big crash caused in part by the run up in gasoline prices is that Detroit now is fighting for survival, so this time it actually appears to be working in concert with the federal government in developing the new fuel standards. What I would like to see is for Detroit to take the bit in its collective teeth and begin a race to produce the most efficient cars possible, which would mean building affordable cars of all sizes with super efficient engines that exceed the required mileage standards.

I strongly believe this nation has the ability to innovate and exceed what is needed to meet these challenges. After all, we developed what was needed to win World War II, to produce the world’s greatest and longest economic boom and to put a man on the moon. “Can’t” shouldn’t be in our vocabulary.