Mixed messages at the auto show

If the auto show highlights the future of the auto industry, the future is cloudy.

Holly Lahd

Over spring break last week, major automakers in America testified before the Federal House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality about the industry’s role in the fight against global warming and the Bush administration’s proposed increases in vehicle mileage standards. CEOs and major representatives of General Motors, Toyota North America, Ford, Chrysler and United Auto Workers echoed the same sentiments: We get the problems of global warming and energy security, but higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mileage standards aren’t the way to go.

CAFE standards are a regulatory tool developed in the 1970s to address our reliance on oil imports. CAFE sets an average miles-per-gallon (mpg) standard that an automaker’s fleet of passenger vehicles must achieve. Many of the committee representatives and auto industry leaders at the hearing agreed that CAFE in its present form isn’t working. But many didn’t acknowledge that perhaps it could be because the CAFE mileage standards haven’t been drastically raised since the early 1990s, while other countries’ fuel economies have risen.

But in order for the automakers to offer the inefficient, big money-making cars, they have to include smaller cars in their fleet to meet the CAFE passenger car standard. But time and time again, automakers contend that Americans don’t want to buy these smaller cars. CAFE and other standards limit precious consumer choice, something as near and dear to American automakers as their own revenue.

Americans won’t go for smaller, more efficient vehicles? I was a bit skeptical at this claim. Well, why not go to the auto show in town to find out? So I went to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Auto Show last Sunday, paid my $9 hoping to be surprised. Ironically, at the same time I was entering the convention center, people gathered at nearby Loring Park to protest the fourth anniversary of a war inextricably linked to the oil-consuming products at the show.

There was a wide range of vehicles at the show, from the Toyota Prius that boasted a 60 city mpg to large sport utility vehicles that somehow got away without posting their mpgs at all.

There was no special promotional hybrid section at the show, but people were getting the message anyway. It was easy to see that the biggest lines to sit in a car were around the hybrid models of Toyota.

Minneapolis isn’t a large enough show for the automakers to bring all of their new concept cars, so I missed out on seeing the new Chevrolet Volt, a new plug-in hybrid concept car that can go 40 miles on a charge without using gasoline.

But the show did have a representative from General Motors who gave an explanation of E85 to the crowd. He was promoting the 10 flex-fuel vehicles GM had at the show as part of their “Live Green Go Yellow” campaign. It was an entertaining performance, half magic show, half informative. But beyond the free giveaways, people were still interested in this technology.

Eventually, the glare from the over-shined vehicles got to me, so I left to figure out this paradox of size and choice somewhere else. Maybe it’s a little naïve to say that if only auto manufacturers advertised their smaller, efficient vehicles better, people would buy them. After all, for most people their survival chances in a vehicle in a head-on crash with an SUV are more of a factor in purchase decisions than the miles per gallon their engines get. As one woman looking at a small car at the auto show put it, “It’s cute, but I would hate to get hit by an SUV.”

But while it’s obvious people are interested in this technology, why were the number of SUVs and large trucks still appearing to dominate the show?

It seems the automakers have created the monsters of SUVs and other large gas-guzzling cars on the road and now refuse to rein them in. And Congress, at least from the questions volleyed to the auto representatives last week, seems only too complacent to let this continue. CAFE is not a perfect system; for too long it has allowed large SUVs to slip through the hole of the light truck vehicle category to escape the higher fuel standards of passenger cars.

For too long Congress has given in to auto industry’s cries that higher standards would mean a loss of jobs. But we’ve heard that reasoning before from automakers on ideas like mandatory seat belts to catalytic converters; and it seems the American auto industry is losing jobs just fine on its own.

A recent poll conducted by the nonpartisan Civil Society Institute found that nine out of 10 Americans think it’s very important for the government to take action to achieve a national goal of 40 mpg. Congress and auto manufacturers need to stop patting each other on the back and recognize the serious problems that our country is facing and that are resulting from the auto industry: energy security, global warming, job outsourcing and more. If they can’t recognize those issues, at least they should listen to the majority of Americans who want them to do something about mileage standards.

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected]