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It's Time to Demand More from Detroit

The Dark Age of the Auto Industry

by RALPH NADER

It is time for the American people to send a wake-up call to the domestic auto industry (General Motors, Ford Motor Company and DaimlerChrysler). Backlogged engineering advances well suited for commercial application and widespread diffusion are ready for use. Unfortunately, today, as was the case 40 years ago, auto company management stands in the way of benign and efficient automotive technology.

With few exceptions, a vast wasteland of technological stagnation and junk engineering from domestic automakers has destroyed over three decades of opportunities for increasing the health, safety and economic efficiency of the motoring public. This "dark age" of the domestic motor vehicle industry was not the result of a series of omissions. It was the product of a deliberate expansion of the auto giants’ power to block innovation.

During this period, the Big Three, with all their autocratic hierarchical bureaucracies, managed to continue losing market share to foreign manufacturers. General Motors and Ford are experiencing massive annual losses, which would be even more immense absent their profitable financing arms. Their bonds have been downgraded to junk status-something unthinkable a decade or two ago.

One might think that such a state of affairs would itself constitute an internal wake-up call to change directions and provide annual value improvements in their products. No way. Notwithstanding the "talk" in their advertising campaigns, it is still business as usual.

Unwilling over the years to regenerate themselves from within their ranks, despite substantial investment, marketing and engineering/scientific resources, top executives managed to mismanage and waste these estimable assets, reserving their energies to blockade external pressures that would have saved them from their own ineptitude.

Instead, the auto manufacturers, together with their dealers and sometimes the United Auto Workers, used political muscle to freeze regulatory activity in both NHTSA and the EPA into obsolescence and even on occasion rolled back simple standards (such as bumper protections requirements).

The formidable auto industry and auto dealer lobby in Washington stopped any effort in Congress to recharge the General Services Administration into upgrading its safety, fuel and emissions specifications for its fleet purchases over the past twenty years. This occurred even though the GSA, under the leadership of Administrator Gerald Carmen, advanced air bag installations through fleet purchases in the mid-Eighties under Reagan.

Having nullified both the internal and external pressures that would have pressed forward toward engineering excellence, the domestic Big Three reverted to their age-old profit formula. They jerry-built junk, profitable junk, called SUVs. They sold a mirage of safety, the status of size and huge horsepower and less cramped interiors. They invested tens of billions of dollars into more powerful and wasteful engines. They made up for declining market share with higher profit margins on vehicles sold. SUVs were the opiate of the auto executives, making them more complacent and sluggish during a lengthy period of stable gasoline prices.

Now the price of oil and gasoline is rising and the motorists may be awakening. So too should motorists raise their expectations for the kinds of vehicles they should be able to purchase in their own multiple interests. Imagine political candidates making the state of motor vehicle engineering a major political issue, extending to health, safety, efficiency and beyond to global warming, and the lack of modern mass transit.

My associate Rob Cirincione, Princeton-trained engineer, has just completed a report titled: Innovation and Stagnation in Automotive Safety and Fuel Efficiency. This report makes the case for raising public expectations and demands upon the auto industry. It demonstrates how automotive suppliers and solid inventors and University-based researchers have innovated while the auto makers have obstructed widespread commercial application of their innovations. Important, feasible engineering innovations are ready to diminish serious national transportation problems.

Our government has the authority and the tools to move their applications into the assembly lines and the dealer showrooms. The engineers and scientists inside the auto companies are ready to work at higher levels of significance. There are serious roadway, environmental, economic and global urgencies at stake. We all have a role in confronting the executive mastodons of the auto industry who are stuck in their own traffic. It is time to put the federal cop back on the auto companies’ beat. Get rid of the backlog. Put the benefits in the hands of the motorists. And, save the domestic auto companies from their own witless masochism.

Over thirty years of stagnation are quite enough. An entire new corps of the top executives is needed to provide a leadership of receptivity to, if not of outright initiation toward a new generation of motor vehicles.

To obtain a copy of the report please send a $30.00 check or money order to CSRL, to: CSRL, P.O. Box 19367, Washington, DC 20036.