White House Given Inside/Outside Views of Gas Crunch

It could have been one of those rare White House scenes that speaks a million words to a receptive public. It could have been, but it wasn’t.

A few days ago, a group of top auto executives met privately with President Carter to complain about federal fuel efficiency standards for cars of the early 1980s0 A few yards away in the White House driveway were two of the three attractive automobiles developed by the Department of Transportation research program. The vehicles featured vastly improved safety features, fuel economy and low exhaust emissions.

The contrast presented a delightful opportunity for Jimmy Carter.

After listening to the heads of multibillion dollar corporations tell him what could not be done to the cars of a few years hence, he could have invited his visitors over to view engineering proof that it could be done and at a competitive price now. Under the observation of the White House press corps, Carter could have bolstered the need for tough regulation to get such performing cars on the road in order to save the lives, lungs and pocketbooks of Americans.

He also could have built some heat under the manufacturers to get moving and stop whining. These prototype automobiles were built precisely for practicability and mass production, not by the auto industry, but by small engineering firms under government contracts.

Instead of what could have happened, nothing happened. The cars were left in the care of Transportation Secretary Adams. There was virtually no press coverage of this five-year research program which, as one departmental engineer declared, “put the lie to the auto companies’ protests.”

Presidential aide Jack Watson, who handled the meeting between Carter and the auto moguls, told me that he didn’t want the auto companies set up. The meeting was designed to discuss a joint government-industry research program to advance automotive technology. Under the circumstances he felt it would not be fair to the auto executives to have them drawn into a highly photographed viewing of these cars that was not on the agenda.

Another view of presidential leadership is permissible. Show the industry, led by Thomas Murphy, chief of G.M. (average company gross was $6 million per hour in 1978), what a tiny government development program can accomplish. Carter could have published the performance capabilities of these cars. The smallest of the three weighs 2,500 pounds, with occupant protection from front and side crashes at speeds around 50 miles per hour. In contrast, the 1984 model cars of that size have only to meet a 30 mph frontal governmental standard. The car, designed by Minicars of Goleta, Calif., delivers 32 mpg and meets the 1984 pollution control requirements.

The two larger cars achieve slightly less ambitious goals. All three cars are designed with air bags, pedestrian protection and many other conventional safety concepts using conventional, nonexotic materials. The whole thrust of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) research vehicle program was to produce a practical car for mass production. Moreover, estimated production prices for these cars, based on 300,000 units per year, range from $4,600 to $5,750.

If all cars on the road today averaged the performance of these autos, gasoline consumption would be cut in half, 18,000 lives saved and hundreds of thousands of serious injuries avoided yearly.

This is good news, but Jimmy Carter was not its bearer that day. He chose to spend half an hour with the auto executives, promised to consider industry demands to weaken the fuel efficiency regulations and announced a vague research program with the industry.

Carter’s focus undermined the automotive progress in his own driveway. The issue was how fast to get these proven advances into the industry’s cars to reduce the pollution crisis, the energy gouge and the casualty epidemic on the highway. Most definitely, the issue was not to suggest that the taxpayer subsidize huge G.M., Ford or Chrysler to do what they should be doing were federal laws solidly enforced. When the future is now, why turn “now” into the distant future? And a will-of-the-wisp of a future at that, judging by similar joint boondoggle research efforts between the Department of Energy and the energy corporations.

The White House press didn’t get a chance to see the president discussing these more humane and efficient automobiles that day. However, Jack Watson indicated that the cars soon may make another trip to the White House driveway for full presidential attention. I hope so, Mr. Watson, for the people’s and the president’s sake.

Interested readers may obtain information about these prototype automobiles by writing to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington D.C. 20590.

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