In the wake of a massive but failed campaign by the auto industry and an army of highly paid lobbyists, California governor Gray Davis recently signed a bill into law which would limit carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles sold in America's most populous state. Proponents and foes agree that the legislation amounted to a clever back-door attempt to impost stricter fuel economy standards for cars, a move which was defeated in the US Congress (sole regulator of fuel economy) only months earlier, following another cash-insentive - and equally dishonest - lobbying effort by the industry.
Testifying before Congress, industry spokesmen had sworn under oath that even a 1mpg increase in their coroprate average fuel economy could not be achieved, even over 10 years, without jeopardising citizens' safety. The position was patently absurd, as Honda alone among car makers pointed out.
Undaunted, the lobbyists and congressmen loyal to them (the best elected representatives money can buy, we like to say) charged that if the enviros had their way, Americans would be pried from their SUVs and forced to drive golf carts. One Washington DC area ad paid for by the industry's primary lobbying entity, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, went so far as to assert that tighter fuel economy regulations would spell the death of our beloved pick-up trucks. 'Farming is tough enough with healthy-size pick-ups', a fellow who looks like a farmer is pictured saying. 'Imagine hauling feed barrels in a subcompact.'
The hysteria, the hyperbole, the utter bullsh*t. It all sounded painfully familiar, reminding us why the industry is so often its own worst enemy. By lying in Washington, it bought itself California. Once again.
To be a young car enthusiast in the 1970s was to spend most of your time deeply depressed. If you believed what you read, it was hard to escape a hideous conclusion: that federal emissions and safety regulations, passed in the wake of similar Californian initiatives, were there to forever sap our cars 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 airbags and strangulated powerplants fit only for the old, the infirm and the tragically dim. And that was if we were lucky.
In 1966, Henry Ford II, speaking out against federal safety standards for cars, warned, 'If we can't meet them when they are published, we'll have to close down.' In 1972, a General Motors executive, testifying against proposed emissions controls, 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.'
True, the Clean Air Act extension of 1970 caught many car makers on their uppers. The bill authorised the newly reformed Environmental Protection Agency (one of Richard Nixon's less frequently credited legacies) to promulgate air pollution standards. Performance suffered briefly, if not - as Honda showed with its brilliant CVCC engine of 1973 - necessarily.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the future. The dire prophesies failed to materialise. Automobiles got safer. They got cleaner. And they got faster. Faster than the good old days of the muscle car '60s, 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. Which is why it is so hard to believe it now as it gears up to fight the new California law in court.
Today, thanks to the power of the microchip, sophisticated fuel injection and emissions systems enable new cars to pollute less but go faster. Indeed, the EPA says the average car's horsepower rating has risen 79 percent since 1981, while performance is up 26 percent. Would that any of us could say the same about our own performance during that period.
The trend to accelerating-enhancing horsepower has shown no signs of deceleration, either - hardly a surprise given the depressing news that the average weight of cars has escalated steadily, too, up 21 percent since 1981, the average car in America gets worse mileage than it did 20 years ago. If the gains from technological advances had been targeted towards fuel economy instead of performance and weight, the EPA says today's vehicles would be about 25 percent more fuel efficient than their 1981 counterparts.
So here's a radical proposition. Is it possible that, say, those three-tonne Cadillac Escalades could make do with just a few less of their standard compliment of 345bhp? Wouldn't that elusive 1mpg increase in fuel economy (and a concomitant reduction in CO2 emissions) suddenly be, gasp, attainable?
Or would that force the auto industry to shut down instead? We ought to be told.
-Jamie Kitman, CAR