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An Open Letter to Barack Obama on the Future of the Auto Industry

Fuel Efficiency is Easy–Just Don’t Let Detroit Tell You How to Do It

by BRIAN T. KETCHAM

Dear President-elect Obama:

For much of the 1970’s I was engaged with the U.S. auto industry, countering their endless claims that they could not meet federal vehicle emissions standards.  I went to work for Mayor John Lindsay in 1969 as an engineer in the then Department of Air Resources.  My job was to figure out what New York City might do to tackle auto pollution.  We secured a million dollar grant from the EPA and set about establishing a new agency to design a comprehensive plan and build an emissions test facility.  Old timers told me this project would take five years to get underway.  I did it in nine months.  I built a new building housing an advanced test facility, outfitted it, hired and trained personnel and got underway.  The objective was to learn about auto pollution by doing testing cars and trucks.  The first thing we did is to install catalytic converters on a dozen city cars including Mayor Lindsay’s limousine.  We installed catalysts on sanitation trucks.  We tested various alternative engines and emissions controls.  The point here is that we got our hands dirty.  We got to know what auto makers knew.  And, we did it five years before auto makers were forced to do it.

On the side, when I wasn’t working for the city, my friend and colleague Dr. William Balgard and I built a low emissions vehicle using catalytic converters and drove it 50,000 miles.  Auto industry complaints at the time were that catalysts would not last.  We took this information to the Congress and they, in turn, turned to auto industry executives and said, “If two young engineers can do this with their own money, then surely the auto industry with billions of dollars can do even better.”

Then the 1973 energy crisis hit America.  Auto executives reported to Congress that they could not meet federal emissions standards without suffering fuel economy losses.  So, Bill Balgard and I purchased a 1974 Ford Pinto, equipped it with advanced emissions controls and demonstrated a 10% improvement in gas mileage.  Again, Congress looked at our results and at the auto industry and said, “Why can’t you do this?” 

The point here – and there are many other examples – is that auto makers can do what you are now asking: improve fuel economy, dramatically.  In fact, Ford and General Motors have done so – overseas.  What is missing from the debate is what U.S. auto makers are producing in Europe, Australia and Asia: small attractive vehicles producing 40, 50 even 60 miles per gallon.  Why is no one asking them to bring these cars into the U.S.?  Are you folks not aware that Europe has enjoyed this gas mileage for nearly two decades (or longer)?  Most of these European cars are powered by small turbocharged diesel engines.  And, they are clean.

In 1975 Bill Balgard and I got a tiny National Science Foundation grant to investigate the health consequences of diesel exhaust.  We were the first to demonstrate that diesel exhaust in auto and truck engines contained cancer causing materials.  We took this information to the EPA, and overnight the Carter Administration pulled the plug on diesels.  They also instituted a National Academy of Sciences study to test our conclusions.  After three years of work with hundreds of separate consultants, they did, in fact, confirm our results.  Unfortunately, this had the further consequence of squashing research on clean diesels in the U.S. 

In Europe, however, eight-dollar-a-gallon gasoline and the potential for doubling fuel economy, did focus their attention on diesels and, today, we have the luxury of adopting this technology to achieve what I believe you are shooting at—attractive fuel efficient automobiles and trucks that are acceptable to Americans.  Just as a side bar, I rented a 3-series diesel BMW in Italy this past summer that got an average of 38 miles per gallon.  And, now, BMW has brought a diesel powered 3-series to the U.S.

In conclusion, I think you are going in the right direction.  Only, we don’t need to wait for hybrids (I know they are coming).  Europe has the hardware right now to accomplish your goals.  Indeed, Ford will be bringing one of their Euro cars to America in 2009 that more than meets you expectations.  And, it is gasoline powered.  Europe gets the diesel powered version with even better fuel mileage.

My experience many years ago is that auto makers can do the right thing.  But you have to keep their feet to the fire.  Otherwise, maximizing profits gets in the way of doing what is right for America.

Finally, you must be wondering how we accomplished what I have described (and a very great deal more that is not mentioned).  We paid for it all ourselves not to make money but to make the country a better place to live.  Also, I am not looking for a job.  My wife and I are very comfortably retired.

Good luck with the auto makers.  And, don’t forget; don’t let them say “we can’t.”  Yes they can.

BRIAN T. KETCHAM is a Brooklyn-based transportation engineer and city planner with over 40 years of experience.  He can be reached btk@konheimketcham.com