Why Are the Detroit Three Resisting New Mileage and Emissions Rules?

The biggest single step any nation has taken to fight global warming is working. Now if the auto industry -- finally selling cleaner cars and making real profits -- would just stop fighting it.
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The biggest single step any nation has taken to fight global warming is working. Now if the auto industry -- finally selling cleaner cars and making real profits -- would just stop fighting it.

The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that after the first year of that big step -- the Obama administration's 54.5-mpg mileage-and-emissions standards -- we are on track to a new-car fleet that in 2025 will halve cars' global warming pollution. We'll save billions of dollars at the pump. With each car, we'll be saving far more than we will spend for the gas-saving technology.

But if we look beyond the EPA's review of the 2012 models, there's troubling news: Car makers are looking every which way to weaken the rules. It's their latest version of bait-and-switch. Back when the taxpayers bailed out the bankrupt GM and Chrysler, auto companies negotiated -- and agreed to -- the tough new program. Now, they are acting as though they want to run the rules off the road.

They have no reason to complain. The EPA reported that the 2012 models' gas mileage improved 1.2 mpg over 2011. That's a five percent increase. The average 2012 car will save $1,600 in gas over the vehicle's life. Car engines turn each gallon of gasoline into 25 pounds of carbon dioxide, the greatest contributor to global warming; the improved mileage will keep four tons of CO2 per car out of the atmosphere over the same period, the EPA estimates.

That's just what we get from a one-year increase. The plan foresees further gains for decades to come.

Virtually all the 2012 improvements came from better engineering of cars. SUVs, vans and pickups are overweight and cheaper to build because they lack much of the best technology. They achieve worse mileage than cars, and spit out more pollution. Automakers failed to raise the trucks' mileage or cut their size.

Once again, the Detroit Three delivered below-average fuel economy. The best-performing automakers were foreign-based -- Mazda, Honda and then Toyota. Nearly all car makers did improve their gas mileage, but GM and Chrysler improved less than the others, and so fell further behind. Ford gained more than its domestic rivals, but its fleet-wide fuel economy was still below the industry average.

According to the EPA report, "Light-Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide and Fuel Economy Trends," 28 percent of the cars being produced this year are doing better than just meeting the current, 2013 standards -- they hit the mark for 2016 vehicles.

So, what is the industry doing?

Negotiating the details of the standards, car makers successfully pushed the administration for a "mid-term" review. They called it an "exit ramp." That says something about their readiness to use it to weaken the standards before they were fully operative.

Now, lagging at the start of this crucial race, the U.S. auto industry is threatening the standards in California, which has been the state leader in fighting global warming, and at the federal level.

The manufacturers have balked at California's requirement that approximately 15% of the fleet sold there in 2025 produce no tailpipe pollution, and privately a top industry consultant has warned that the Detroit Three are readying "a bloody fight" to weaken the federal standards.

Meeting the standards is auto mechanics, not rocket science. The data show the companies are achieving the early targets while only beginning to deploy their best technology.

As we wrote in Los Angeles Times, the auto companies should be celebrating, instead of kvetching. They are delivering profits to share holders and cleaner cars to the public.

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