When Industry Says It Can't Be Done That's When You Know It Can

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Jun 21, 2011

By the time Anthony Weiner got around to avowing recently that the content of any texts he sent minor females was not "indecent" was there anyone still inclined to take his word for it?

That's the way I feel when I hear the American automobile industry howl with pain over their own dire prophesies when discussing proposed regulations that would require the corporate average fuel economy(CAFE)to rise, to an average 62 mpg by the year 2025 -- representing a roughly six percent annual increase between now and then -- or possibly less.

Do I really want to believe these guys, god bless their prevaricating souls, when they have been lying for so long and in such well-worn treads, that only a fool -- or the American media -- would take their word for anything having to do with emissions, fuel economy or auto safety? It's as if there's a whole other category of news organizations' fact-checking procedures for predictions of corporate doom. At best, our media will find some obscure green spokes-knob to say the industry is wrong in its assessments, but the typical newspaper's attitude is, they know their business, how could we possibly doubt their word?

Lee Iacocca and the Ford Granada

Well, a little more cynicism of the variety that rightly attends Anthony Weiner/Rod Blagovich pronouncements and a little less He Said/She Said might be in order. Let us recall, in a quick, inexhaustive survey:

  • 1962, when General Motors testified before the New York state legislature against a regulation requiring the installation of seat-belt moorings (not even seat belts), arguing that people were better off being thrown from their cars (notwithstanding their own 1930's studies which had confirmed the value of seatbelts).
  • 1966, when Henry Ford II, speaking out against federal safety standards requiring laminated windscreens for cars, warned "If we can't meet them when they are published, we'll have to close down."
  • 1971, when Chrysler's Lee Iacocca told Richard Nixon in a secretly recorded tape, "And you can see that safety has really killed all of our business.... We're not only frustrated, but, uh, we've reached the despair point....Shoulder harnesses and headrests are a complete waste of money."
  • 1972, a General Motors executive, testifying against proposed emissions standards, said,"It is conceivable that complete stoppage of the entire production could occur, with the obvious tremendous loss to company shareholders, employees, suppliers and communities."
  • 2002, when California, in a barely concealed attempt to impose stricter fuel economy requirements, proposed to start regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and a Washington, D.C., area ad paid for by the industry's primary lobbying entity, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), went so far as to assert that tighter fuel economy regulations would hurt food production. "Farming is tough enough with healthy-size pickups," a fellow who looks like a farmer is pictured saying. "Imagine hauling feed barrels in a subcompact."
  • 2011, when the AAM warns that the proposed 62-mpg CAFE standard could cut car sales by 25 percent, costing the industry 220,000 jobs.

Throughout the years, unifying the industry's arguments, inter-related and endlessly circular, are the same tired themes: It can't be done (technical impossibility), people will stop buying cars because the regulations will make cars too expensive or create other undesirable results (performance anxiety, marketing disaster), meaning people would lose their jobs (employment crisis), and eventually the sky will fall.

To be a young car enthusiast in the 1970s was to spend your days deeply depressed. If you believed what you read, it was hard to escape a hideous conclusion -- federal emissions and safety regulations, passed in the wake of similar Californian initiatives, were there to forever sap our machines of their zest for living. Performance was dead, officially so, and in its place a new generation of overweight bumper cars was on its way: clown machines with air bags, strangulated powerplants and pitiful horsepower ratings fit only for the old, the infirm and the tragically dim. And that was if we were lucky.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the future. The sky did not come crashing down. The regulations were met. By and large, automobiles got safer. They got cleaner. And they got faster. Faster than the good old days of the muscle car sixties, when cars were cars and men were men, and you could smell them both coming. Faster, in fact, than they've ever been.

Quite the opposite of what the industry warned us against. People kept buying new cars (rightly or wrongly)--and at vastly lower costs than industry had predicted. (Exaggeration being another shopworn tool in the industry's arsenal: In 1962, it was later revealed, the cost of seat-belt moorings was a tiny fraction of what they testified it would be.)

Which is why it is so hard to believe the industry now as it gears up yet again to combat new fuel economy regulations. And remember, friends, in another 21st century-irony, as taxpayers, it is our money being spent by GM and Chrysler to fight the regulations that our government is proposing.

Lie to me once and I don't say anything, fair enough. Lie to me twice, and shame on me. Lie to me ten thousand times and more and I'm the American media covering the auto industry. If only it were possible to know the truth!

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