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The Autocrats Detroit and the Politics of Pollution.

They called it the "Arsenal of Democracy" and it was truly one of the 20th century's most astounding feats of industrial accomplishment. The year was 1941 and the place, Detroit, Michigan. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor brought the US fully into the war. Most civilian auto production was halted as the entire industry was converted to wartime production. The scale of the undertaking that followed was unlike anything the world had ever seen.

From a standing start in late 1941, US automakers converted -- in a matter of months -- more than 1,000 automobile plants across 31 states. The automakers not only undertook the manufacture of unfamiliar and entirely new products; they produced them in unprecedented volume, far exceeding anything in their civilian experience.

In one year, General Motors developed, tooled, and completely built from scratch 1,000 Avenger and 1,000 Wildcat aircraft for the US Navy. GM's Oldsmobile division produced 48 million rounds of artillery ammunition, 350,000 precision parts for aircraft engines, and an aerial torpedo, requiring 3,000 parts and 20,000 separate operations. GM designed a six-wheel, 2.5-ton amphibious truck that was tested, built, and off the line in 90 days. Ford's massive Willow Run plant in Yipsilanti, Michigan turned out a B-24 Liberator bomber every 63 minutes.

The US auto industry converted well over 85 percent of its capacity for military production, turning out more than 2.8 million tanks and trucks, 27,000 aircraft, and more than 5.9 million weapons.

By the 1960s, some of the best minds in the auto industry were contributing to the US space program. GM designed and manufactured the mobility system for the lunar rover used to explore the moon's surface in 1971. Meanwhile, down on Earth, things in Detroit were changing.

When it came to a problem called smog and cleaning up tailpipe exhaust, the auto industry seemed to lose its "can-do" spirit. Derring-do was being replaced by cost accounting. Suddenly, the industrial machine that won the war and "redefined what was possible" could not manage to solve straightforward technical problems.

Fire and ICE

The internal combustion engine (ICE) is the thing that makes the world move. It is a major part of the global economy It is also a chamber of fire, combusting fossil fuels to produce the power that drives the car. But every time this engine's sparkplugs fire somewhere on the planet, waste gasses waft off into the atmosphere.

At last count, there were 600 million internal combustion motor vehicles moving around the planet; a number that is slated to double to more than a billion in 20 years. Every hour of every day, nearly 7,000 new ICE-powered vehicles are produced globally -- 1.2 million a week, 60 million a year.

What we burn does not go away: It stays around for a good long time. [CO.sub.2] released in 1910 is still up there. Every 20-gallon tank of gasoline burned sends about 380 pounds of [CO.sub.2] into the blue for a century of heat-trapping havoc.

The Big Three automakers -- General Motors, Ford and Daimler-Chrysler -- account for about 35 percent of all vehicles sold globally and more than 70 percent in the US, with annual profits running from $4-billion-to-$6-billion. Last year set an all-time US record, with more than 17 million vehicles sold. Light truck sales (minivans, pickup trucks, and sport utility vehicles) now comprise nearly half of all US vehicles sold. Because the profits on a big SUV can top $15,000, the automakers now have lots of cash (Ford has more than $20 billion), but much of the Big Three's money is going into new or expanded truck and SUV capacity.

The Big Three say they have made tremendous progress in pollution control. They say that by the year 2007, the ICE will burn at "near-zero pollution." Yet some of today's vehicles are environmental abominations, getting less than 15 mpg. Some SUVs pollute at three times the level of passenger cars.

Today we are told that the auto industry is on the verge of the clean car. New hybrid vehicles are here and the fuel cell, the automakers say, is just around the corner. Still, as former Senator Ed Muskie, the father of the Clean Air Act, used to observe, each year's production of vehicles at the current pollution standard really means ten years of pollution into the future at those same levels.

Meanwhile, the growth in vehicle sales continues to overtake clean-up gains. Vehicle miles of travel (VMT) is doubling about every ten or 15 years. So as Detroit tries to make that old ICE burn just a little bit cleaner, with a tweak here or a new controller chip there, VMT eats up the gain. Incremental ICE cleaning just doesn't cut it anymore: "Zero emissions" technology is needed.

Holding Back the Future

Despite the passage of updated federal air quality laws in 1965 and 1967, air pollution was becoming a growing national problem. In November 1966, an air pollution episode in New York City led to 80 deaths and in early 1967, Congress convened hearings to probe automobile pollution.

Sen. Warren Magnuson's Commerce Committee and Sen. Edmund Muskie's Public Works Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution held joint hearings to consider alternatives to internal combustion. Bills were proposed to bring the federal government into alternative engine research and encourage the purchase of alternative vehicles for government fleets.

At this hearing, the automakers was repeated the same old story: While some alternatives to the internal combustion engine showed promise, they all had "drawbacks." In their 1972 book, Alternatives To the Internal Combustion Engine, Robert Ayres and Richard McKenna told a different story. At the time of the hearings, they observed, "at least three technological alternatives -- the gas turbine, Rankine-cycle (steam) engine, or hybrid -- could be adapted to automotive purposes with no significant sacrifices in terms of performance."

Killing the Steam Car

The Rankine Cycle engine was not a "Stanley Steamer" type engine, but rather, a modern engine that ran quietly and smoothly with good acceleration and very low emissions. Government reports and non-industry inventors found that the Rankine engine showed promise as a propulsion system for modern automobiles. An October 1967 US Department of Commerce study concluded that such engines "potentially offer a satisfactory alternative to the present automobile and should have very low pollution and noise."

Two non-industry inventors -- the Williams brothers of Ambler, Pennsylvania -- testified before Congress and impressed senators with rides around Capitol Hill their steam-driven car. At the hearings, General Motors Vice President Lawrence R. Hafstad testified that GM had worked for 40 years to perfect a modern steam engine but had found the steam engine too costly, too heavy, too inefficient, and too dangerous.

In a 1970 study called Vanishing Air, a Ralph Nader investigative team interviewed a GM engineer who challenged Hafstad's testimony. GM, he charged, did not undertake work on the steam car until after Hafstad testified. "They already had the conclusion [that the steam engine was not a feasible alternative] and we were told to prove it," he explained.

In May 1969, GM brought out a cavalcade of 26 new vehicles in its "Progress of Power" show. The display included cars powered by hybrid gas-electric motors, gas turbines, liquefied petroleum gas, various internal combustion engines, and two steam-powered cars. One 1969 GM ad hailed Pontiac Grand Prix as "the world's first steam car with complete power accessories, including air conditioning." But unlike the Williams' brothers' speedy steamer that had so impressed the Senators, GM's Pontiac featured an engine that weighed 450 pounds more than the one it replaced -- and yielded half the horsepower.

According to one eyewitness, "the GM contraption made wheezing, clanging noises like an untuned calliope. Furthermore, although all experts agree that the steam engine is less polluting than the internal combustion engine, this machine sputtered out huge quantities of smoke and soot.... GM got its message across: A great deal more time was needed ... at the drawing boards."

Nonetheless, the Senate Commerce Committee staff report concluded: "The Rankine Cycle (steam) propulsion engine is a satisfactory alternative to the present internal combustion (gasoline) engine in terms of performance and a far superior engine in terms of emissions." Even Ford acknowledged in 1968 that a Rankine-style engine could fit under the hood of its cars.

The California Crusade

In 1969, California State Senator Nicholas C. Petris began investigating the possibility of replacing the engine with low-polluting alternatives. "Our lungs are turning gray with inhaled grime." Petris said, "We are living in an envelope of poison."

Petris believed the automobile industry could produce a smog-free engine if it pushed hard enough. At one of Petris' hearings, William Lear (inventor of the Lear Jet and a steam-car advocate) was asked if he believed a 1975 phase-out of the internal combustion engine was practical. "Yes," Lear said, "if this committee and others like it across the country have the guts to take the pressure such an act would generate."

Petris was up to the challenge. He introduced SB778, a bill that would prohibit the sale of all diesel- and gasoline-powered internal combustion engines in California by January 1, 1975. (A companion bill proposed allocating up to $1 million in state funds for research into cleaner engines.) Auto industry lobbyists thought Petris' bills comical. However, the laughing stopped in July 1969 when the California Senate approved the bill by a vote of 26-5 and sent it to the California Assembly.

"If the human race can send a man to the moon," said one senator, "surely it can clear up smog." Auto lobbyists said Petris was really backing William Lear's steam car project, a charge that Petris stoutly denied. "I don't care if [the engine is] electric, turbine, steam, jet -- or rubber band," he declared.

By the time Petris' bill came to the assembly, the auto industry was paying a lot more attention. California auto dealers were present in force and the nationwide Automobile Manufacturers Association issued a statement criticizing the bill.

With California accounting for ten percent of the US new car market, the industry was willing to make economic threats. "We believe that enactment of this legislation would economically destroy California," said Jim Gorman, executive vice president of the Motor Dealers Association of Southern California. Petris' bill failed by one vote.

In the wake of the vote killing the bill, one San Jose auto dealer commented, "The damage has been done. The car is now looked upon like some kind of dangerous drug that [has to be] taken off the market. It now has the same reputation as DDT."

Big Cars, Big Profits

Ford engineer Hal Sperlich was one of the few voices within the industry that tried to push efficiency and smaller car design well before the energy crisis. At General Motors, Ed Cole and John DeLorean, then head of the GM's Chevrolet division had argued for smaller cars in the late 1960s. They pointed to the VW Beetle and the fact that much of the sales growth in the US since 1965 had been in the small car segment.

But Cole and DeLorean were up against the fundamental growth dictum of GM's Alfred Sloan: "Trade up to bigger cars." By this rule, every American had a fundamental right (if not an economic obligation) to buy increasingly bigger, more expensive cars. Cole and DeLorean prodded GM to design smaller and lighter compacts and intermediates, while scaling down full-size cars but they ran head-on into GM's powerful finance committee, dominated by executives who were solidly committed to the big-car worldview.

"Behind GM's reluctance to de-emphasize big cars," wrote business reporters Stephen Shepard and J. Patrick Wright in December 1974, "lies the essence of the Sloan strategy: Bigger cars earn bigger profits. A Cadillac Coupe de Ville ... cost only about $300 more to build than a Chevrolet Caprice, but the Caddy sells for $2,700 more than the Chevy -- yielding an extra profit of $2,400 per car." By comparison, a typical intermediate, like the Chevelle, returns about $600 per car, the compact Nova about $450, and the sub-compact Vega only about $125.

Bigger cars also meant more options such as air conditioning, automatic transmissions, vinyl tops, and power steering, which returned profits of 40 percent or more. All of these extras required more power and bigger engines. "You put a few more bucks into a car, enlarge it, and sell it for a lot more money," explained Chrysler's Director of Marketing Services Leonard Piconke.

Small Cars: Bungled by Design

The small cars that Detroit had produced, had been reluctant efforts at best. If anything, the companies had brought out inferior, unappealing cars to prove their own thesis that small cars were inferior and unpopular. The cars were under-powered and the companies did not promote them. That proved, the industry argued, that Americans did not like small cars.

Behind the scenes, however, GM and Ford were both discovering some remarkable things, such as the European success with front-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive was known in the industry as a fuel-saving engineering technique that saved weight without sacrificing performance. But neither Ford nor GM wanted to invest in new programs that would threaten their long tradition of big-car profitability In 1971, Lee Iaccoca sent Hal Sperlich to Europe to learn about front-wheel-drive cars. Sperlich test-drove a Fiat 127 and found it to be one of the best-handling cars he had driven in years. As an engineer, Sperlich also believed that front-wheel drive vehicles were superior. He concluded that Americans would buy them.

A Ford engineer in the 1950s named Fred Hooven advocated front-wheel drive, as did a GM engineer named Frank Winchell: They were never taken seriously GM studied front-wheel-drive small cars in the early 1970s, but the idea was not pursued. In the spring of 1973, GM's Pete Estes, slated to become GM president, sent Tom Davis to Europe to learn about the new front-wheel drive cars, like the VW Rabbit. At the time, Estes was thinking of front-wheel drive as an option for which GM could charge consumers more. After Davis returned, he reported to Estes that the European cars with front-wheel-drive were better-engineered and better all-around cars than those Detroit was producing. Frontwheel drive was a breakthrough of immense importance, he said. But Estes told Davis in so many words that it wasn't in GM's best interest to be first in the market with a new technology.

A Better Message

Automakers have been hiding behind a convenient marketplace maxim that pretends that consumers determine what Detroit builds. In fact, consumer demand is powerfully shaped by an endless, mind-numbing barrage of automobile, truck and SUV advertising.

Between 1980-2000, US automakers spent $80 billion urging people to buy large-sized cars and trucks. In 1988, GM hyped its Silverado pick-up truck with a $135 million advertising campaign, one of the largest-ever campaigns for a single vehicle. Chrysler spent $136.4 million in 1998 on its Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Recently, Ford has been running TV and print ads that make them appear more like an outdoor gear manufacturer than an auto company TV spots for the Ford Outfitter feature kayakers, men and women climbing cliffs or jumping into pristine lakes, and hikers scaling a snow-covered, Himalayan-type mountain. In many of the shots, no vehicles are pictured. As part of the campaign, Ford dealers were given tents, kayaks and other outdoor gear to set up in their showrooms.

In 1998, Ford and its dealers spent $63.7 million on advertising for the Expedition, $61.8 million for the Explorer, and $13.7 million for ads featuring the two SUVs together.

What if that same kind of money had been used to take the lead in fuel economy or to promote the virtues of new hybrids?

The Tobacco Parallel

The American Lung Association estimates that annual health costs from motor vehicle pollution could be as high as $93 billion. A group of Harvard University researchers studying respiratory disease and death found that 30,000 US citizens die every year from respiratory illness attributable to the automobile's airborne toxins.

The possibility exists that the US auto industry may soon find itself the target of a class-action lawsuit brought by cities, state attorneys general, insurance companies, asthma sufferers, and private and public bodies seeking damages and the recovery of health costs attributable to auto exhausts.

At a time in our nation's history when tobacco and gun manufacturers are the targets of lengthy legal battles to recoup financial compensation for the damage their products have inflicted, should automobile manufacturers -- with a 50-year resume of resistance and technological negligence -- be treated any differently?

Excerpted with permission from Taken for a Ride: Detroit's Big Three and the Politics of Pollution by Jack Doyle (Four Walls Eight Windows, New York/London 2000, (212) 206-8965,].


And Solar-Hydrogen Fuel Won't Solve Gridlock

Fuel cells offer the tantalizing possibility of ushering in an entirely new energy economy. They may soon power our cars, our watches, our laptop computers, and our homes. Hydrogen is the most available element in the universe, constituting 80 percent of all matter. But this tightest element is found in pure form almost nowhere on earth. It has to be separated from other substances, such as natural gas or methanol

If hydrogen is produced by renewable energy sources, such as photovoltaics or geothermal power, it can be a perfect zero-emission loop, with drinkable water the only by-product. The fuel-cell car can be an electric vehicle with none of the drawbacks of batteries.

The promise of fuel cells can realistically be compared in importance to Thomas Edison's development of a workable incandescent light. Fuel cell cars are on the road right now and they could be in mass production as early as 2004. A lightweight fuel-cell car could travel 1,000 miles or more between pit stops.

Clean cars won't solve all the problems of the car-culture. Even in a zero-emission vehicle, we'll still sit in traffic. In the not-too-distant future, will we have replaced the idling rows of fossil-fuel burners with a new plastic bumper-to-bumper lockup of "clean cars"?

Getting cars off the road is a Herculean effort, made even harder by population increases. If transportation is to move efficiently in the new millennium, we'll have to promote moratoriums on suburban sprawl, construction of new in-town housing and development of interconnected rapid-transit networks.

Excerpted from Forward Drive: The Race to Build "Clean" Cars for the Future by Sim Motavalli (Sierra Club Books, 2000).
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Author:Doyle, Jack
Publication:Earth Island Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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