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derrick z. jackson

Complaints are few as fuel efficiency rises

The most amazing thing about the Obama administration’s recent announcement of a 54.5-mile-per-gallon standard for cars by 2025 was that about the only major person who criticized it was Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The Romney campaign called the standards an “extreme” move that would force consumers to “pay thousands of dollars more up front for unproven technology that they may not even want.”

But many of the forces that for decades said the same thing were not at Romney’s side.

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The auto industry, which once howled that stringent fuel efficiency standards would cost America thousands of jobs, is saying the opposite. General Motors spokesman Greg Martin said, “Customers want higher fuel efficiency in their cars and trucks, and GM is going to give it to them.” And while autoworkers historically have fought against tougher standards, too, current United Auto Workers president Bob King says, “Lowering the total costs of driving will make automobiles more affordable and expand the market for new vehicles. The standards will also provide certainty for manufacturers in planning their investments and creating jobs.”

Of course, the industry’s conversion came about the hard way. The Obama administration demanded progress on efficiency during the bailout of GM and Chrysler. In pushing Detroit to become competitive with Toyota and Honda and cut greenhouse gas emissions, Obama won a commitment from carmakers to get to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. American and most foreign car companies negotiated with the Obama administration on a 2025 national standard in the face of stringent emissions rules coming out of states like California. The prolonged recession and $4-a-gallon gasoline clearly fueled compromise as consumers began seeking out fuel-efficient cars.

It all adds up to the 54.5-miles-per-gallon standard finalized last month as representing a second chance for the American auto industry to again be a global model of innovation. An analysis by the Boston-based Ceres coalition on sustainable business said that the new fuel economy standard could create 43,000 auto industry line jobs by 2030.

After decades of denying that fuel-efficient cars were practical and that small cars would ever become popular, General Motors last month saw a 25-percent rise in sales of its Chevrolet Cruze. Ford saw purchases of its Focus rise by 35 percent rise over 2011.

That does not yet rival the 122-percent rise for the Toyota Prius sales or the 106-percent rise for the Honda Civic over the same period. But it is a major start. Ford is launching the gas-electric hybrid, 47-miles-per-gallon C-Max van to challenge the Toyota Prius wagon. Achieving 54.5 miles per gallon will push creativity even more. Some companies will reach it by improving all-electric technology. Some will achieve it with better gasoline engines; many of today’s four-cylinder engines are more powerful than the V6s that dominated the market a decade ago. This summer the Associated Press noted that 8 of 10 midsize car sales are four-cylinder vehicles.

Now, the industry will have an incentive to further improve gas-electric hybrid engines, aerodynamics, and tires. New designs will probably incorporate lighter body metals, along with mechanisms to conserve fuel at stoplights. To be sure, not everyone in the auto industry is happy with the new standard. Though Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the up-front additional $2,000 cost of fuel-efficient vehicles pales next to the $8,000 in estimated fuel savings over the life of the vehicle, the National Automotive Dealers Association said the up-front costs will shut out millions of Americans from the new car market.

It is also important to note that the auto industry agreed to the new standard after negotiating a mid-term review in 2018. This obviously could be used as a loophole to escape the 2025 deadline. But it is stunning Obama got this far. GM is displaying such an all-American, can-do spirit about fuel-efficient cars that auto analyst Jessica Caldwell of Edmunds.com told The New York Times, “Small-car performance is what’s most impressive about GM’s numbers today.” The UAW’s King says, “Cleaner vehicles that significantly reduce our nation’s oil consumption are good for the auto industry and its workers, good for the environment and good for our nation’s economy.”

That sounds like the Sierra Club. Meanwhile, Romney does not even bother with listing the environment as an issue on his campaign website. He said if he wins the White House, he will try to remove carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, from the Clean Air Act. In a June interview with the Detroit News, he said that Obama’s fuel economy standards push cars “that the consumer doesn’t want” and forces the market to “adopt a technology that people aren’t interested in.”

In showrooms across the country, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.
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