Dudder: Gas from Washington?

Columns From: 8/1/2008 Automotive Design & Production, , Contributing Editor

We can't if we want the auto industry to survive. That much is clear by the steps taken thus far to teach OEMs a lesson.

If there was any intelligence in Washington, D.C. (ahem!), there would be a moratorium on new emission and safety standards coupled with carrots to improve the efficiency of plants and power-trains.

If there was any intelligence in Washington, D.C. (ahem!), there would be a moratorium on new emission and safety standards coupled with carrots to improve the efficiency of plants and power-trains. It would be a tacit admission that the current situation is grave enough to require at least some relief from further regulation, but that's not the way it works. The political class in this country is interested in one thing only-itself. Few are the politicians that understand theirs is a job of service to the nation at large, not to whatever constituency has the money to catch their attention.

It's true that the Founding Fathers set the branches of government against each other with no one branch more powerful than the other, and each with overlapping duties to provide checks and balances such that tyranny would not result. Smart as they were-they seemed to understand the usefulness of both compromise and gridlock-they could not have foreseen a time where government would grow as large and bloated, so intrusive and powerful that it would have such a large impact on every aspect of life. Yet it has happened. And it's going to get worse.

For those in the auto industry, the prognosis is particularly dire. Cars and trucks-and the freedom they represent-are under attack on multiple fronts. If you listen to the pundits, vehicles-especially those made by the evil American automakers-are responsible for most every wrong imaginable. Global warming? You bet. Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens-a doddering old fool-voted to give the EPA authority over CO2 emissions, though their presence in the Clean Air Act is conspicuous by their absence, based on his fears that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be faced with the prospect of New York lying under 20 feet of water as the polar ice caps melt from global warming. Oh wait. Make that "global climate change," the new phrase of the moment designed to get around the inconvenient truth that the world is not warming as predicted, none of the climate models can predict today's weather based on the historical record, and that if the history of the earth from birth to the present was represented on a 12-month calendar all of recorded history would be the last two seconds of the last day of the year, making the "historical record" less than complete. Unfortunately, the court didn't do what it should have-punt the ball back to the legislative branch-and took the opportunity to rule.

Compound that with the revisions made to the CAFE standards. In their wisdom, and need to be seen as "doing something," the executive and legislative branches decided to arbitrarily raise the standards despite high gas prices accomplishing the task much more efficiently. Some of the more learned members wanted them raised higher-75 mpg sounds attainable, right?-and postured and posed before the cameras. Did they do anything to increase oil supply? Heavens no! That might disturb the eco-system, lead to spills, and release CO2 when burned; a techno-phobic attitude that, were it present in the 1970s, would mean the moon would still be unexplored. Did they take into account that approximately 100 million gasoline-fueled vehicles are still on the road and will be for decades? Absolutely not! Better to scoff at rubes "in the back pocket of Big Oil" and tout alternatives that are always "just around the corner" than do anything constructive. Too bad none of them remember the old saying about the paving material on the road to Hell.

While all this was taking place, increases in the safety standards are under consideration. Yes, it's a national tragedy that so many die on the nation's roads, but is it really going to make a difference if we raise crash test speeds by 5 mph, alter angles of incidence, or add more airbags? Or would it make more sense to make folks responsible for their actions, improve the roadways and infrastructure, and give people the incentive to learn how to actually handle their vehicles? I must be crazy! You can't expect the electorate to do the right thing, or the elected to lead them along the right path. It's too hard.

None of this absolves the domestic OEMs for slavishly chasing the latest fads (Hey enviros! Toyota also builds the Tundra, Land Cruiser/LX470, Lexus GX470-trucks and SUVs!-as well as the Prius.), signing union contacts they couldn't afford, not taking the steps necessary to produce truly efficient powertrains at an affordable price, or any of the other sins they have committed. And I'm not about to start now. Nor will I absolve consumers for buying vehicles they now can't afford. But the one thing I categorically refuse to do is to spank an industry reeling under idiotic decisions made by grandstanding politicians, or doddering solons on the bench more concerned with fears than facts. The stakes are too high, the time too short, the consequences too grave.