The House and the Senate recently ended a quarter-century of procrastination and stonewalling when we voted for a dramatic rise in the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks.
The vote was a small but significant step for America toward energy independence. Let’s hope it also marks a giant leap for Washington, D.C., toward real leadership because we’re long overdue.
For far too long, our leaders in both parties made energy policy by doing what was easy, turning their backs on hard realities and great possibilities. As a result, while our computers are roughly 1,000
times faster than in 1981, our cars and trucks travel no farther on a gallon of gas today than they did when all of America was wondering who shot J.R.
The bill we passed is a practical compromise in the best traditions of the Senate, and it’s a sign of the changing times. Global warming, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and record gas prices have finally brought home the importance of this issue.
I’ve supported efforts to raise fuel-efficiency standards for my entire Senate career. In 2002, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and I first proposed an increase to 35 miles per gallon, and the measure was killed by special interests before it even came to a vote. This time, the 35 mpg increase passed with a voice vote — a sign of its overwhelming support in the Senate.
Washington is finally beginning to realize that raising fuel-economy standards benefits just about everyone.
Despite warnings to the contrary from the auto industry, higher standards undoubtedly will save consumers money. The National Academy of Sciences found that existing engine technologies were cheap enough to pay for themselves over the life of a vehicle and could enhance fuel economy by 8 to 11 mpg with no net cost to consumers. And that’s with the technology available today — future inventions undoubtedly will yield future savings.
Raising fuel-economy standards also provides a boost for the companies developing the cutting-edge technologies that will secure America’s economic advantage in the 21st century. One Massachusetts company, A-123, has developed the technology for a plug-in hybrid car that gets 150 mpg. The average American’s commute is less than 30 miles round-trip — and this car can travel that far without any meaningful contribution from a combustion engine. Higher fuel- efficiency standards will encourage Detroit automakers to incorporate and mass-produce the cutting-edge technology that already exists.
Higher fuel-efficiency standards aren’t just good for America’s security, its high-tech startups or consumers driving for hours on holiday weekends — I believe they’re good for Detroit and the auto industry, too.
I remember sitting with a top CEO from the auto industry four years ago. He’d come to see me to warn against strict new automobile efficiency standards. He asked, “Why in the world would we change everything to build more fuel-efficient vehicles when no one wants them?”
Three years later, as the demand for hybrids and high mileage vehicles soars, the Japanese have cornered the market while our own companies have been caught flat-footed. In May, hybrid sales in the United States jumped to 45,000 vehicles, the highest monthly total ever — but unfortunately Toyota captured 80 percent of these new hybrid customers.
Like any large, vested interest, automakers is averse to change — even those changes that could ultimately work to their benefit. The auto industry must accept that, if the cars of the future are to be made in America, they must embrace fuel-efficiency.
Why am I so sure that automakers can make better, more fuel- efficient cars if we ask them to? Because they’ve done it before.
In 1975, after a roiling energy crisis whose record high gas prices weren’t surpassed until this summer, Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. For the first time, America established fuel-economy standards for passenger cars and trucks. By 1985, we had increased new car and truck fuel economy by 70 percent. Our oil dependence had dropped from 36 percent to 27 percent.
And back then, much the same as today, Detroit said it couldn’t be done. Ford warned that Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards could “result in a Ford product line consisting either of all sub-Pinto-sized vehicles or some mix of vehicles ranging from sub-sub-compact to perhaps a Maverick.” When mileage standards rose, the sky didn’t fall, and Americans didn’t start driving around sub-Pintos. Detroit simply made the cars Americans wanted — just more fuel- efficient than before.
This is an industry that’s been dragging its feet on fuel efficiency since the early days of disco. Washington can’t take fear for an answer. We must help Detroit build the cars of tomorrow.
This Congress and this president have a chance to turn the passage of this fuel- efficiency bill into a watershed moment. We can turn the page on an era of inertia and ineptitude — but that will only happen if we build on this success and continue to deliver real change to the American people.
I urge my colleagues in the House to also pass strong CAFE legislation and make it the opening salvo in a larger fight. We must reclaim our future from pain at the pump, global terror and global warming — one barrel of oil at a time.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Innovation.