L.A. Auto Show Debrief: Don't Listen to Automakers When They Say "It Can't Be Done"

For decades, automakers have repeated one line: “It can’t be done.”

On display at last week’s L.A. Auto Show – at which fuel efficient gasoline cars, electric vehicles, and clean diesels assumed center stage – were the greatest hits of automakers’ false claims:  that innovation is too costly, difficult and undesirable. Walking down the hall, the displays of green cars was evidence of what we’ve been saying for decades: regulation drives innovation. (In 2006, I co-wrote a paper on this topic which was cited in Thomas Friedman’s book Hot, Flat, and Crowded.)

Where automakers once claimed it can’t be done, each green car at the L.A. Auto Show echoed the? point: “It can be done.” In fact, it’s already happening.

In walking past the VW, BMW and Audi “clean diesel” cars I was reminded of when I testified in front of the California Air Resources Board during the Low-Emission Vehicle Program (LEV II) adoption twelve years ago.  At the time, I asked the Board to reject the automakers claim they couldn’t make a diesel car as clean as a gasoline car. According to the automakers, California would have to choose between clean air and fuel efficiency. The Board recognized this as a false choice. Today, diesel cars meet California’s stringent smog and soot pollution standards.

Clean air and fuel efficiency? It can be done.

In walking past Kia’s new gasoline direct injection turbo-charged engines I was reminded of when, in 2004, automakers opposed the California Air Resources Board adoption of the “Pavley Clean Car Standards” on the basis that the proposed CO2 emission limits would cost $4,000 per car. Now the automakers are telling consumers that this engine will save them money, without sacrificing power.

Kia’s engine twin scroll turbochargers give the power and performance of a V6 with the fuel economy a 4 cylinder engine – very cool. (I am, after all, an engineer.) GM calls their version “Ecotec”. Ford calls their version “Ecoboost”. I call them tangible evidence that regulation drives innovation

High performance, low emissions gasoline engines? It can be done.

Finally, walking past the GM Volt, Nissan Leaf, the Hyundai Sonata hybrid and Honda electric vehicles I was reminded of the fight we’ve had with the automakers over California’s Zero Emission Vehicle Program. For the better part of two decades automakers have told us that nobody wants electric vehicles. Now they are tripping over themselves to lead the race to sell electric drive cars. Fortunately for the planet and our lungs, California once again rejected the automakers claims.

Consumer desire for electric vehicles? Strong and growing. It can be done.

Over the past four decades, automakers have opposed seatbelts, catalytic converters, and airbags. Two years ago, I did an analysis demonstrating based on GM’s and Ford’s own recovery plans showed that they were already planning on meeting California’s CO2 emission standards. At the time, a New York Times editorial cited my analysis framed it perfectly: "Now they say they can do it".

Today, according to the industry information submitted to the US EPA, at least one automaker agrees that they can achieve fuel economy standards between 57 and 62 mpg by 2025. (See page 9 of the “Supplemental Notice of Intent”.) Though the EPA did not disclose which automaker has finally adopted a “can do” spirit, let’s hope the Detroit companies are at least not too far behind.

If we’ve learned anything from the long debate over vehicle innovation it’s that it can be done – just don’t listen to the automaker lobbyists.