Automaker Accountability

The Center for Auto Safety is the nation’s premier independent, member driven, non-profit consumer advocacy organization dedicated to improving vehicle safety, quality, and fuel economy on behalf of all drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.




 Automaker Accountability


Building clean vehicles is not rocket science – it is just smart auto mechanics.

Americans deserve to be driving vehicles that use better technology to cut global warming pollution and save money. Automakers hold the keys.

Federal and state regulations governing fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions set performance standards.

The responsibility for building cars that pollute
less rests with the automakers.


But it is ultimately up to the automakers to build vehicles that meet these standards. The products they develop will determine whether American consumers will have a real choice when they look to buy fuel-efficient vehicles.  

While the industry continues to drag its feet, the financial crisis it is facing demonstrates that automakers must develop the next generation of vehicles if they want to survive in the new marketplace. Hybrid vehicles are rolling advertisements that better fuel economy is not only possible – it’s affordable. It is time for the entire industry to move forward and produce clean vehicles that tackle the environmental and the financial challenges we face.  

A History of Industry Opposition to Higher Fuel Economy

Even after automakers met the first fuel economy standards in the 1970s and 1980s, they did not abandon their opposition to requirements that they produce cars to meet higher miles-per-gallon standards. During the 1990s, the auto industry led the fight that killed fuel economy bills in Congress and prevented the Department of Transportation from even considering raising the standards. At the same time, the industry exploited multiple loopholes in the existing law, principally by building more and more SUVs to take advantage of weaker fuel economy standards for light trucks. The industry also lobbied against legislation that would have raised fuel economy standards to 40 miles per gallon, from 27.5 mpg. This legislation fell three votes short of Senate approval in 1990.  

Automakers continued their blanket opposition to better fuel economy through 2005, successfully removing fuel economy provisions from key energy bills. But the industry failed in 2007 to block legislation raising the miles-per-gallon standard. Congress was no longer willing to listen to the automakers’ false arguments. It passed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which set the first significant increase in fuel economy standards since 1975. Nevertheless, Detroit fought these provisions until the end, attempting to weaken the standards and preempt the states from setting greenhouse gas emissions limits for vehicles. While the industry lost this round, it continues to challenge these laws in court, slowing progress and putting litigation before innovation.  

Responsible Companies Should Make Responsible Vehicles

Instead of trying to undermine federal and state laws and block improvements, automakers must take responsibility for improving their vehicles. Responsible companies must begin building entire fleets of clean vehicles that use modern technology to boost fuel economy and reduce global warming emissions. It is not enough to build a few clean vehicles while the rest of the fleet remains stuck in neutral. All cars and light trucks must begin making dramatic improvements in fuel economy. This is imperative not only for the health of the environment, but also for the financial success of the automakers.



It is time for the auto industry to rethink its product plans and its stance on fuel economy. Responsible companies should stop marketing and producing inefficient vehicles.

Pickup trucks should be vehicles once again focused on work. Light trucks should be found at construction sites and small businesses, not hauling lattes from Starbucks. Large SUVs like the Hummer need to become passions of the past.

These grossly inefficient vehicles guzzle gasoline and represent the worst of backwards design. At the same time, companies need to be stopped from exploiting such loopholes as the provision governing flex-fuel vehicles. It allows them to artificially inflate their official fleetwide fuel economy just by producing vehicles that can, but rarely do, run on ethanol.  

The auto industry should be held accountable for its actions and products. For many years, the industry has done the minimum that the law required, even as it has also fought tooth and nail to block any government action. In the new economy, successful companies will be the responsible ones that move smartly forward into the next generation of automotive technology. The recalcitrant will be left behind.

Auto Industry Leaders and Laggards

Some automakers lead the industry in fuel economy, while others have fallen behind. Currently, Honda and Toyota have the highest fleetwide fuel economy and lowest average greenhouse gas emissions of any major automaker. Both were early developers of hybrid-electric vehicles. Their commitment to better technology has helped boost their financial performance and enabled them to survive the recent shifts as the industry has tried to adjust to dramatically higher gas prices.  

Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler are on the opposite end of the spectrum.  Year after year, they have reported the worst fleetwide fuel economy of the major automakers. They have been slow to put new fuel-saving technology into their vehicles. As a result, they have lost market share and suffered financial losses as consumers have shifted to more fuel-efficient vehicles.  

Over the past 20 years, American automakers have focused increasingly on producing inefficient SUVs and pickup trucks. This strategy was initially profitable. But it is now haunting the Big Three. They are posting record losses and are struggling to avoid bankruptcy.

Automakers that received billions of dollars in bailouts from the taxpayers—and may do so again—work for us now. They shouldn’t be spending our money to fight good laws and make bad vehicles. It is time for them to be good corporate citizens.

By ignoring the need for better fuel economy and a full range of high-quality products, they are stuck with SUVs and other light trucks that consumers are not buying. Because they did not develop better car technology, they now have cars whose fuel economy ranks at the bottom of their class. As a result of these decisions, American autoworkers have lost their jobs and the companies’ futures are in jeopardy. Unless they change course, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, one-time icons of American industry, face increasingly dim futures. 

The Race to Succeed

While some manufacturers continue to lead the industry, they still fall far short of where modern technology can take us. Toyota and Honda continue to offer some high fuel-economy models, while also building inefficient SUVs and other trucks. They need to refocus and produce highly efficient vehicles throughout their fleet. And the laggards need to steer themselves onto the road of higher fuel economy and profit.

The auto industry must act responsibly. It needs to recognize that it must embrace better technology and develop vehicles that dramatically reduce global warming emissions by breaking our reliance on oil. The industry leaders must stride forward to develop a new generation of clean vehicles.