It's Not Just about Hybrids: Three Tips for the Car Industry

I am a proud Prius owner, and I love my car. But the news this week reminded me that it is not enough for automakers to offer a small handful of fuel efficient models. Instead, the industry has to confront the reality that America needs an energy transformation and car makers have a critical role to play in that process.

For years now, U.S. automakers have been delaying the inevitable. Instead of unleashing their engineers to create cleaner cars, they have deployed their lawyers to fight regulation. When first California and then 17 other states tried to exercise their right to reduce global warming emissions from vehicles, automakers dashed to court and tried to block them.

But this week, their efforts were clearly running out of gas. The first indicator came on Monday, when House investigators revealed the White House interference likely played a role in the EPA’s December decision to deny California the right to regulate greenhouse gas pollution from cars. (Read my colleague David Doniger’s analysis of these findings in the Washington Post.)

The second indicator came on Wednesday when the Senate Environment and Public Works committee passed a bill requiring President Bush to endorse California’s right to regulate global warming pollution from cars.

So what does this mean for U.S. automakers? I recently sat down with a correspondent from a GM website and told him the three things I think his and other car companies need to do to confront a carbon-constrained future. You can view our conversation online, but here are the three steps.

 1. Make Cleaner Products.

The 18 states that want to regulate global warming pollution from cars make up 45 percent of the U.S. market. If American automakers can’t satisfy that demand, their business model will be thrown even farther into reverse than it already is. The past two years have brought promising announcements about more efficient, consumer-friendly small and mid-sized cars, but we need to see better products coming off the assembly line, especially plug-in hybrids.

 2. Weigh In about What Kind of Fuel Cars Use

It’s great that Detroit is finally designing better models, but all car makers should be a part of the debate about where the fuel comes from. Biofuels are promising, but we have to figure out how to resolves the food/fuel conflict and the environmental impacts of producing biofuels. There is a right way to grow fuels and a wrong way, and car makers should participate in getting American on the best path.

 3. Offer Options to Get Consumers Out of Cars

I know this sounds radical: car makers thinking about mass transit. But they should start viewing themselves as transportation companies that move people from place to place. Cars will remain a central part of that, but automakers could also help to shape--instead of fight--America’s efforts to enhance public transit and support smart growth.

Every time I get behind the wheel of my Prius, I feel like I am driving a global warming solution. I am grateful that Toyota made this car available, but it is not enough.

The scale of global warming is so enormous that it is no longer sufficient for car makers to offer better designs. They have to participate in all three parts of the debate. Creating a cleaner energy future is not an incremental process. It is a revolutionary, transformative one. We need leaders in the auto industry to help jumpstart it.

Here's my conversation with GM's Matt Kelly: