environment / soap box

The Car Manufacturer Bailout: Let’s Turn This On It’s Head

On the way into work today, I was listening to NPR, and there was a story about automobile emissions standards, and how those standards have come into question around to the industry’s requested bailout. I realize I don’t usually get into political issues here, but something about this story grabbed my interest. I do like to talk about ecological issues, and I feel like at the heart of things, we are stewards of this Creation. So, for me, the questions of pollution, global warming, and acting on these causes is closely tied to being spiritual.

On NPR, they were discussing the fact that as part of the possible $15-$25 billion bailout requested by General Motors, Chrysler and Ford, one of the stipulations had been that the big three manufacturers had to drop long standing law suits with the state of California over their vehicle emissions standards.

What’s this you ask? Well, here in California, starting “way back” in 1943, we started having big problems with smog in the Los Angeles basin. Even back then, politicians started passing legislature around emissions because public health was a concern. As things have grown and changed, the focus is now on our impact on the environment.

The standards that California has passed, and that at least 12 and as many as 20 states would follow (as of NPR’s report this morning), are more stringent than the federal standards. The California standards, which were proposed with the “Pavley Bill,” are briefly described as such: “Under the Pavley bill, automakers will have until the 2009 model year to produce a new California breed of cars and trucks that will collectively emit 22 percent fewer greenhouse gases by 2012 and 30 percent fewer by 2016. Seven Northeastern states, including New York, have pledged to adopt the California standards. Former Governor Gray Davis signed it into law on July 22, 2002.”

This law has been contested from the beginning, by the major car manufacturers because it hits their bottom line. Originally, the contention was around the fact that the large/heavy SUVs could not be sold in California (they didn’t pass the emissions standards), and that this would cut into profits. Now, with the bailout, the manufacturers are crying out that we need to return to a single set of standards, and that those standards should be the same across the nation. And, that those standards should be the federal ones, not the more stringent ones that have been mandated in California.

What I hear behind this is “It will cost us money to make these changes, and we’re so focused on how things have always been that we don’t want to change anything. We just want more money to keep running things just as they have always been run.” It literally is all about these major car companies, and their concern about profit, and about being unwilling to change the old paradigm of building an automobile.

Here’s my stance on this topic. It’s clear from declining sales that GM and Chrysler are no longer meeting the public’s needs as they once did. Even two years ago, Toyota had ousted Chrysler from it’s standing in the “Big Three.” People have stopped buying these cars. It’s also very clear to me that there is a need to make a cleaner running vehicle, one that is efficient in gas if it uses gas, one that is affordable to the general American consumer, and one that is forward thinking in its design, energy source, and likely its size.

So, why, instead of defending old ways, demanding a bailout, and wanting to retain the old manufacturing plants, why is one of these big three not re-thinking the business of building a car? Why is a spokesperson from the industry saying this morning on NPR that it should fall back to the old production in order to retain profits?

Let’s turn this thing on it’s head! There is a niche that’s waiting to be filled; and it is a green car, an affordable car, a car that doesn’t pollute or create health problems, and one that meets or exceeds emissions standards across the nation.

I’m no car expert, but I think there’s money in this plan. If the manufacturers made plans to make a new kind of car, retrofitted a plant, it seems jobs would be opened up, and the green consumer would buy this new kind car. I don’t have the full answers, for certain. But it seems like the responsible thing to do, especially if the manufacturers are getting OUR money to do it, is to build the car we want. Not to keep building the cars we don’t want and have stopped buying.

I have my hopes that the industry will arrive at a similar idea. It’s the right thing to do – for the economy, for the planet, for people’s health, and for our future. While its a brave idea, and takes a risk, “you can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it.” Meaning, we can’t fix the problem we have by continuing to do the same thing we’ve always done.