Maybe conservative commentators just don't get it

Joel Schwartz is a visiting fellow for the conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute. In a recent column titled "Environmental Activists Just Don't Get It," he circles a fleet of Hummers around personal liberty, protecting our freedom of choice from efforts to legislate reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The premise, as so often stated by environmental critics, is that if automakers are required to decrease GHG, which is basically forcing them to improve fuel economy, then American consumers will lose their freedom of choice.

I doubt if the major automakers would drop such a lucrative segment as fullsize SUVs or any large vehicle if stringent fuel economy improvements were imposed. They will find a way to meet both consumer demand and environmental needs. And to fair, that technologically advanced vehicle might not come right away. There was a time when automotive enthusiasts did lose their freedom of vehicle choice in deference to solving a significant environmental problem. And yet we all survived as a country and society, and we cleaned up a major environmental mess.

I loved '60s muscle cars. I wanted a Boss 429 and an LS6 Chevelle and Hemi Road Runner in my driveway. Detroit would have kept building those cars had it not been for legislation to clean up emissions. They were literally defiant in implementing pollution controls and developing technology to produce cleaner engines.

I first moved to Los Angeles when most cars had only PCV valves and just started to get catalytic converters. I rarely saw the Hollywood sign from the South Bay, which is about 20 miles away. Now I'm surprised when I don't see it. Would I have loved to have seen how much horsepower and fun automakers could have developed in the '70s had they not been restricted by emissions regulations? Sure. Did I miss anything by not having the freedom to buy a 450-horsepower Mustang in 1980 instead of the 4-cylinder slug that I had for six years? No, there were no tears on my pillow at night. But the improvements in air quality in a region that was gagging every afternoon turned out to be spectacular and life-saving.

Detroit got fat and lazy in the '60s and didn't know how to respond quickly when society needed help. A similar scenario is developing today in that the cars are getting fat. When SUVs started becoming popular, automakers didn't look for efficient ways to build larger vehicles. They didn't have to. Just put an SUV body on a truck frame and the public will buy every one. And every year they got heavier as engineers strived for quieter ride and improved handling. As more mass was piled on by the NVH and chassis-dynamics engineers, the powertrain engineers had to come up with more horsepower and bigger engines. Today's vehicles are just too heavy.

Now is the time to give the powertrain engineers a break. They won't have to build such gas-guzzling engines if engineers in the other departments will get off their addiction to weight. Consumers may have to adjust for a few years but in the end they won't lose their choice. Guess what? 500-horsepower muscle cars did return. The new Z06 Corvette pollutes about 99 percent less than the ZL1 Corvette, gets twice the gas mileage and still runs quicker and faster. Even if automakers are dragged kicking and screaming into helping solve another environmental crisis, they will respond. And consumers will be patient if the wait results in healthier living conditions and a better vehicle.

[Source: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research]

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