|After the first burst of creative energy and risk taking which led to the mass-produced
gas car, the auto industry has refrained from taking any chances--some have said, they have not only refrained,
but quashed innovation. It took some doing to drive the turn-of-the-century 1900 model electric car out of existence,
it lasted into the 1920's. But after that initial leap, the industry has been more re-active to changing requirements
than pro-active and flexible.
The auto industry has fought against nearly every proposed safety innovation -- seat belts, air bags, upholstered
dashboards, safety locks, inside trunk locks, catalytic converters, emission control engine devices, etc., etc.
-- to make cars safer or less harmful to the environment. Auto industry executives
claim outrageous cost, lack of market
support, and general dire consequences if they are forced to adopt a new technology for the public good.
Later, when the new technology succeeds, they claim credit for the accomplishments. This view gives us a unique perspective on the auto industry’s
response to California’s Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) requirement.
In 1971, when Lee Iacocca was president of Ford Motor Company, he was so strongly opposed to automobile
airbags that he appealed personally to then-President Richard Nixon, and persuaded the president to kill a pending
federal regulation mandating airbags for U.S. cars. (Of course, Iacocca didn’t know the conversation was being
taped.) As the head of Chrysler Corp. in 1988, he announced that by 1990 all of Chrysler’s U.S.-made cars would
be equipped with driver-side airbags. Chrysler officials were driven more by federal law than by their own
engineering judgment or concern for drivers’ well being.
Despite auto maker projections that a single driver-side airbag would add $1,000 to the cost of a new-car and industry
predictions that benefits were marginal and that consumers wouldn’t want or pay for them, airbags today are standard
in every new car in America. Car dealers tried to talk customers out of purchasing airbags when they were offered
in a few models as an option, suggesting they were too expensive, unreliable and might suddenly inflate for no
reason and cause the driver to lose control.
Even when forced to acknowledge the value of airbags, industry did not generally offer the "expensive"
so-called "smart" airbags, but used the cheapest version -- which were prone to low-speed impact collisions,
thus arguably sabotaging the program. Only after an estimated dozens of deaths of smaller persons by airbag inflation
did industry generally offer the "smart" airbags.
Former General Motors President Edward Cole played a key role in the airbag’s development. Reflecting back on that
era, Cole said an automaker must "create a desire on the part of the user" to buy an option like the
airbag. Did GM do that? Cole’s reply: "No." Foot-dragging, misinformation campaigns and political pressure
bought the car makers a 20-year delay in making passive restraints standard in our cars – the initial government
notice regarding the safety systems was published in 1969.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 4,750 people are alive today as a result of the
federal airbag requirement that finally took effect in 1990. Similar tales can be told for the car industry’s response
to seatbelts, padded dashboards, energy-absorbing steering wheels, shatterproof windshields, fixed head restraints,
and the like.
When faced with regulations requiring significant reductions in tailpipe emissions, car makers have
predicted catastrophic consequences – economic chaos, rampant unemployment and massive barriers to implementation.
Was this the response to the California Air Resources Board’s Low Emission Vehicle program and ZEV rule? You bet.
But it wasn’t the first time the cries had been heard.
Former General Motors Vice President Ernest S. Starkman claimed, "If GM is forced to introduce catalytic converter
systems across-the-board on 1975 models, the prospect of an unreasonable risk of business catastrophe and massive
difficulties with these vehicles must be faced. It is conceivable that complete stoppage of the entire production
could occur, with the obvious tremendous loss to the company, shareholders, employees, suppliers, and communities.
Short of that ultimate risk, there is a distinct possibility of varying degrees of interruption, with sizeable
Ford claimed in testimony that if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not suspend the catalytic converter
rule, it would cause Ford to shut down and would result in: 1) reduction of gross national product by $17 billion;
2) increased unemployment of 800,000; and 3) decreased tax receipts of $5 billion at all levels of government so
that some local governments would become insolvent.
Both companies are still in business and car companies claim credit for reducing automobile emissions by 96 percent
since the 1960s.
During earlier reviews of the ZEV rule, automakers hired public relations firms to try to convince Californians
that the clean car rule should be overturned. A solicitation sent by the American Automobile Manufacturers Association
to PR firms planning to bid on the proposal claimed that, "Recent surveys indicate a majority of Californians
believe zero emission vehicles (ZEVs) or electric vehicles are a ‘workable and practical’ means of reducing air
pollution. This is a shift from surveys and focus group results of 1993, and may indicate greater consumer acceptance
of electric vehicles." The solicitation went on to challenge firms to organize a grassroots campaign seeking
"to create a climate in which the state’s mandate requiring automakers to produce electric vehicles in 1998
can be repealed." In 1996, and again in 1998, automakers succeeded in weakening the ZEV rule. In 2000, they
are seeking to kill it once and for all.
Western States Petroleum Assn. lobbied the CARB hearing extensively, reputedly
paying for bussing retirees under the guise of a front organization called "Citizens Against Hidden Taxes",
run by one Anita Mangels. Articles by a certain Mr. Craven recounted the "explosion danger" of EVs. Cartoons
and articles were and are planted which misrepresent the experience, numbers, status, and success of the ZEV Mandate
and EVs in general.
And by the way, the sky is falling. Today, airborne pollution is causing more than 90 percent of California’s
citizens to breathe air that is harmful to their health. Mobile sources such as cars and trucks are still
the primary source of air pollution.