.Cold Start

You, Detroit, could have been a contender


D ear American Auto Industry:

You’ve heard our good news—the free-at-last EPA is reconsidering our federal waiver request (you know, the one Bush denied a few years ago). If California gets that waiver, we will be allowed to lower tailpipe emissions, and 13 other states will follow our lead. We’re very excited about this, but I am not writing to gloat.

I’m writing to help you out. No, you won’t find a check enclosed. Instead, I’m offering you something that’s plentiful in our part of the country even during economic slumps, and frankly more valuable in your situation than money: creative thinking. It can guide the use of resources and inspire profitable, responsible innovation.

We know you are not celebrating with us. We can tell from what your lobbyist said on National Public Radio last week, just after President Obama directed the EPA to jump on this matter. I understand that state-by-state emissions standards will present a challenge for your industry, but your rep said it might cause “confusion and chaos.”

His choice of words drove me to the NPR website to review his comments. I had to make sure someone at the station hadn’t mistakenly played an old tape from the Cold War years. Look, no offense, but since that guy is on your payroll, and since you’re using our bailout money to keep him fighting us, you really ought to send him to a workshop or two in the North Bay where he can learn the language and functional worldview of these times.

While he’s here, he can absorb some of our progressive culture. Let him stroll the streets of Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties and mingle with those who look at fear-based rhetoric in the same way they look at Hummers—as amusing and so last-century. He might even visit the North Bay’s Anti-Hummer Humor Center, more commonly known as Kelley’s No Bad Days Cafe in downtown Napa. Kelley is a chef who serves California cuisine in a restaurant adorned with eclectic tchotchkes and Hummer-bashing artifacts. Her business is doing great. Yours isn’t.

See, it’s not just your rhetoric that’s stuck in the past; your cars can use a push, too. That’s why I’m writing to offer some help. Before you use up all that borrowed money trying to stop citizens from protecting the air they breathe so you can go on with business as usual, pause and consider the innovative thinking of other car manufacturers.

Nissan decided to experiment with the way it makes and sells cutting-edge vehicles, and as a result is bringing electric cars to Sonoma County in 2010—a whole fleet of them. The Japanese auto industry is partnering with the county’s cities, water agency, transportation authority and Open Space District to provide no-emissions electric vehicles. It is also working with the county to plan the vehicle-recharging stations to keep the cars running.

Sonoma County has the goal of reducing carbon emissions in the next six years to 25 percent below 1990 levels, possibly the most ambitious community climate goal in the country. Nissan stepped forward to work with the county, and is forging similar partnerships with jurisdictions elsewhere in the United States. It has created a model that works for the car business and for the environment.


Meanwhile, your industry put a spokesperson on NPR to say, “What we need is certainty and consistency.” Is that last-century lingo for maintaining the status quo? Actually, what we need is creativity. Ponder this: You, Detroit, could have been a contender. The county of Sonoma’s existing fleet of hybrids is roughly half Japanese-made (Toyota and Honda) and half American-made (Ford). But as that community moves toward its emissions-reduction goals, it has chosen to broker a vehicle deal with the more innovative players. Maybe if American automakers weren’t investing so much time and brainpower trying to block California from defending our air quality, you could be working and thinking creatively, too. Then you’d drop your Cold War rhetoric and expensive lawsuits to become a successful industry again. Good luck. We hope you join us soon in our climate-protection efforts.

A California Driver

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