Can Automakers Reach 35 mpg by 2020?

November 19, 2007

3 Min Read
Can Automakers Reach 35 mpg by 2020?

Since writing a story about proposed legislation that would force automakers to boost their average fuel economy to 35 mpg, I've heard from an amazing number of people who think American auto executives are liars.

That's harsh, but there's no other way to put it. They think they're liars. Cheaters, too. Most believe the automakers can boost their mileage to 35 mpg any time they want, but are poor-mouthing because they don't want to damage their bottom lines.

I understand why they feel that way and I don't blame them.

Before I explain myself, however, let's back up and explain the situation from the beginning. Over the summer, the U.S. Senate signed a bill that would force automakers to reach 35 mpg by 2020, no matter their mix of cars and trucks. Automakers cried foul, arguing they couldn't possibly do that without going broke.

To be sure, all automakers disliked the legislation. But American automakers cried loudest, largely because they build so many trucks and because the legislation took virtually no note of that.

For the record, I agree with them. It doesn't take an expert to see that reaching 35 mpg is going to be tougher for Chrysler, which has a lineup of 70 percent trucks, than it is for a company with a lineup composed mostly of cars. Moreover, there is no secret carburetor or fuel injector wrapped in oily rags in a Detroit basement that could suddenly enable all trucks to reach 35 mpg tomorrow. Also, I agree American automakers shouldn't be compared to European automakers who've already reached 35 mpg. That's an apples-to-oranges comparison. Europeans don't have high percentages of trucks or minivans. They drive mostly stick shifts, which American consumers generally reject. And they use 4-cylinder engines, which won't do much good for a truck manufacturer.

That said, I still sympathize with those who say American auto executives are liars. Why?

Because they're not above twisting the truth. In the past, they've repeatedly shot their own credibility by saying they couldn't meet CAFE, by saying air bags wouldn't help promote automotive safety, by saying air bags would break them financially and by saying, inexplicably, that they didn't want seat belts. And, oh yes, they also claimed that their quality and reliability was on a par with the Japanese in the 1980s, when everyone with a pulse knew it wasn't true.

So now, they want the American public — car buyers, legislators and environmentalists — to believe them when they say this legislation will break them. And it would appear they're telling the truth. To turn their businesses in another direction, to jettison truck designs, to develop new technologies and incorporate them in a brand new fleet of vehicles while still remaining competitive in the face of overwhelming financial pressures … that seems like an awfully tall order.

So, yes, the financial wolf is at the door. The problem is, American automakers have cried wolf too many times in the past.

Sadly, the American public isn't buying it this time.

Bob Shull, deputy director of auto safety and regulatory policy for Public Citizen, explains why he thinks automakers have the technology within reach to acheive 35 mpg by 2020.

Weigh in with your opinion by e-mailing me at [email protected].

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