Automakers' Intransigence Has Blocked Progress

At a Key Moment for Vehicle Standards, Automakers Could Fall into Old Patterns—Or Innovate to Succeed

Published Dec 6, 2017

WASHINGTON (December 6, 2017)—Since the 1950s, passenger cars and trucks have improved dramatically—emitting less pollution, keeping drivers safer and going further on less fuel. But at nearly every turn, automakers have opposed the new rules that have made these advances possible. Today, strong standards to improve vehicles are under attack, and automakers face a choice. Will they deliver more efficient cars and trucks to America’s drivers, or will they resort to their familiar pattern?

A new Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) study, “Time for a U Turn: Automakers’ History of Intransigence and an Opportunity for Change,” details how, for seven decades, leaders in the auto industry have resisted new policies with misleading claims and political interference. History seems to be repeating itself today, as automakers lobby to weaken federal efficiency and emissions rules.

“It has always taken strong rules to make cars safer and cleaner, but automakers have a long history of claiming they can’t meet these rules,” said Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst at UCS and the author of the new report. “These heated claims have been proven wrong again and again, but every time there’s a new opportunity to use policy to deliver better vehicles, the auto industry rolls out the same tactics to block progress.”

Automakers and auto industry trade groups have responded to new rules by insisting that they’re technically infeasible, or would result in the end of the industry. These arguments have been used against advances like seat belts, air bags, fuel economy improvements and pollution controls.

“Auto industry executives have claimed repeatedly that new rules would destroy the industry,” Cooke said. “They’re still here today. Policymakers and the press simply can’t take these claims at face value.”

This year, the Trump administration has re-opened federal vehicle efficiency standards, a remarkably successful policy that has improved efficiency for vehicles from small cars to big SUVs and pickup trucks. The auto industry is lobbying the administration to weaken the rules, deploying their now-predictable playbook of scare tactics and misinformation.

“America’s automakers thrive when they’re innovating,” said Margo Oge, the former director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality. “Emissions regulations have historically spurred innovation, and the industry has always beat their own cost and performance targets in complying. Working towards the 2025 standards, the U.S. auto industry has come roaring back in profitability and sales. Today, Americans have more choices than ever, and the safest and cleanest cars in history. The new technologies are creating high paying jobs and making the industry a leader again, globally. Automakers must stop trying to shift us into reverse.”

Time for a U-Turn” shows that, despite their historic claims, automakers can innovate to meet health, safety and environmental standards that have delivered real benefits to America’s drivers. Today, automakers are meeting or even exceeding the standards they helped to design in 2010, and drivers have saved nearly $50 billion at the pump as a result.

“It’s time for auto manufacturers to keep the promises they made,” said former California state Sen. Fran Pavley, who authored legislation that established the first-ever global warming pollution standards for cars and trucks in the U.S. and provided a model for federal emissions rules. “They fought hard to stop standards that would benefit consumers and the climate, but when push came to shove, they innovated and are meeting the requirements. Automakers should continue investing in technology, not hiding behind public relations strategies and lobbyists. Drivers want to be able to buy vehicles that pollute less and protect our health. We can’t afford to go back on the progress we’ve made.”