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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Domestics vs. Imports: American Made Still Guzzling

The message from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory confirmed that the domestic auto industry, except for maverick Chrysler, was losing interest in making their vehicles guzzle less gasoline. “For the first time since 1974, the overall fuel economy of new cars purchased in the U.S. was lower in 1983 than in the previous year,” the Oak Ridge analysis concluded.
The gap between imported and domestically manufactured cars widened. . For the 1983 model year, imported fuel economy increased 0.9 miles per gallon over 1982 to an average of 31.8 miles per gallon, while U.S. built autos declined 0.5 mpg to an average of 24.6 miles per gallon.

Oak Ridge explained that greater sales of larger cars with larger engines, combined with declining diesel automobile purchases, were important factors in less efficient domestic cars. The GM diesel engine lemon fiasco helps explain that decline. And because the domestic car companies make more money selling larger cars with more powerful engines, their marketing emphasis is obviously in that direction.

Buyers walk into the showrooms and learn that the V-8 engine is available now, but there would have to be a six week delay for a smaller engine. Light trucks are no longer advertised for commercial work purposes; it is now “fun” to own one. The Dodge division advertises its trucks as “the adult toys”, Ford points to the “razzle—dazzle good looks,” and GM announces “how civilized” a pickup truck can be while inducing consumers to load up on fuel robbing accessories such as “power steering, automatic transmissions, air conditioning, stereo and cruise control.” As Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, testified before Congress this month, the light truck and small van market is now over one—fifth of the total vehicle market and rising.

As expected, General Motors and Ford plead innocence, claiming that the customers are the ones out of step with energy conservation needs. The companies say they are just giving the buyers what they want. But foreign cars grew in engine size and in weight during the 1983 model year over the previous year and they still increased their average fuel efficiency during that period.

The alleged innocence of the two big domestic companies is not only belied by their marketing strategies but also by their demand that the federal government weaken existing fuel efficiency rules for light trucks and generally relax levels for other models. Both GM and Ford want no more upgrading in federal fuel efficiency standards either when the 1985 level of 27.5 miles per gallon average fleet level is reached. Chrysler opposes relaxation of these standards because the company has met their rising levels each year. At the Congressional hearing, chaired by Cong. Richard Ottinger, Chrysler asked a rhetorical question — if it could meet the standards why couldn’t the much larger GM and Ford?

The answer is: because of the permissive Ronald Reagan. Since taking office in 1981, the Reagan regime has made it clear that there would be no post-1985 elevation of vehicle fuel efficiency standards. At the Department of Transportation, the fuel efficiency unit has been all but disbanded. There is no more research, no more monitoring of fuel economy and no more requirements for the auto companies to provide information which was used to set standards and assure compliance.

Asserting that these actions violate the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, the Center for Auto Safety is taking legal action to force compliance with this law by the Department of Transportation.

The law has been quite a success. Average new car sales-weighted fuel economy has risen from a low of 14.2 miles per gallon in 1974 to an estimated 26.4 miles per gallon in 1982. In 1980, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, these mileage standards helped reduce oil imports by $3 billion. The agency also noted that buyers of a 1985 car would save $3,300 in gasoline costs over the life of the car due largely to the prod provided by these federal requirements.

Ronald Reagan never did understand the importance of reducing energy waste in securing the nation’s energy self-reliance. In 1980, he actually campaigned against thrift — calling energy conservation a way of “freezing in the winter and sweating in the summer.” His ignorance is now federal policy and it is setting the stage for the next energy shortage, gas lines and sky-rocketing prices. Had Mr. Reagan continued to advance fuel efficiency rules, new cars would have reached over 40 miles per gallon on the average by 1990. He has stopped putting the auto industry on notice and instead has put the motorist at risk.