Fuel Economy and the Auto Industry

By Raymond Viger

To reduce gas consumption, on January 2, 1974, U.S. President Richard Nixon lowered the speed limit on American roads to 55 miles an hour. Given that vehicles at the time consumed upwards of 17.4 litres/100 km, this gas saving measure had its limits.

Nixon forced the auto industry to produce cars that consumed less gas. He adopted the CAFE standard (Corporate Average Fuel Economy), which forced automakers to gradually reduce fuel consumption in their automobiles to 8.6 litres/100 km by the 1980s. Despite an increase of 35% in the number of vehicles on the road, Americans managed to reduce fuel consumption by two million barrels of oil per day.

Automakers carried out research, and presented prototypes that could attain 2 litres/100 km with conventional technology, without the need for electric hybridization. In 1987, the Renault Vesta 2 automobile got to 1.94 litres per 100 km.

This research had a very limited effect on mass production models. They continued to get heavier to satisfy safety standards and assure better performance and comfort for their customers.

The American auto industry teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. It should have built smaller cars, but it didn’t learn how. Japanese manufacturers took over 20% of the market.

President Ronald Reagan, who began his presidency in January 1981, rescued the industry by suspending CAFE standards. He thought it was too great a price to pay in order to avoid dependence on foreign oil. OPEC, the oil producing cartel, took advantage of this and made billions in profit.    

One of the green solutions to help the planet is to guarantee cities have better public transit. And here we were, buying public transit systems to close them! Are governments powerless in the face of lobbyists?

The Electric Car

The first electric automobile dates from 1852! Rechargeable batteries were first made in 1859, and improvements to them in 1881 helped the rise of the electric vehicle. In 1899, 38% of the American market was electric. But by 1920, electric cars were all but forgotten in the rush to buy the Ford Model T.

Only in 1996 would pollution and oil supply worries renew interest in the electric car.

California has long been a leader in its efforts to reduce air pollution. In 1990, California required automobile manufacturers to devote 2% of their sales to electric cars with zero emissions in order to be eligible to sell vehicles in the state. To comply with this obligation GM developed the EV-1, and Ford came up with the Think.

But GM and Ford got together to contest the right of a state of the union to impose such a quota. With the arrival of George W. Bush in power in 2001, the Federal Court invalidated the California requirement. In 2003 California withdrew its Zero-Emissions Vehicle program.   

Despite waiting lists to lease the EV-1 and positive comments from motorists, in November 2003, GM announced that it was recalling the 1,000 cars they had leased out, with the intention of destroying them. A few months later, Ford did the same with theirs.

Where would we be if GM and Ford hadn’t abandoned the electric car? Can we accuse GM, Ford and other car companies of collusion with oil companies? Can we consider Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as complicit with auto manufacturers and oil giants?

– This is an excerpt from the book Regard vers le future (A Look at the Future), published by Éditions TNT.

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