Automakers need to support clean emissions standards for our future

Automakers need to support clean emissions standards for our future
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Maxwell, Peerless, Wayne, and White. Names that ring a bell? Not unless you are an antique car collector. They are all manufacturers that exhibited in 1906 at one of the earliest Washington Auto Shows. Like thousands of other hopeful automakers in history, they did not survive. The future, it turns out, can be a very unforgiving place. Unfortunately, most of the automobile companies exhibiting at the annual Washington Auto Show this coming week seem determined to learn that lesson the hard way.

Innovation is a ubiquitous noun in the automotive industry, and people attending the Washington Auto Show are bound to hear executives say it more than once. But how can we trust the automakers to innovate for the future when their own track records show the opposite? Just months ago, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota, and still others retreated from the future when they sided with the Trump administration against clean cars.

Revoking the California waiver to set its own greenhouse gas emissions for vehicles, which have been adopted by 14 states and the District of Columbia, was quickly and rightfully criticized by the public. General Motors chief executive Mary Barra frequently extols her vision for a zero emissions future, but those words will ring hollow until she and other automaker executives stand up for climate progress, public health, and last but not least, their own customers. Electric vehicles are orders of magnitude better for the environment, public health, and the climate.

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Automakers know this. Virtually every one of them eagerly trumpets plans for electric vehicles. Some are even introducing exciting new models at the Washington Auto Show. Yet instead of embracing the electric vehicle future, almost the entire automotive industry has been edging into the market with the parking brake on. The Sierra Club last year released the first nationwide report on the consumer shopping experience for electric vehicles. We recruited close to 600 volunteers who surveyed more than 900 automobile dealerships. What shoppers found is that the industry puts up serious barriers for consumers at dealerships across the nation.

A majority of the dealerships surveyed did not have one single electric vehicle on their lots. Salespeople often failed to provide information on consumer incentives to make vehicles more affordable or were poorly informed about electric vehicle technology. Too often, when an electric vehicle was supposedly available for a test drive, it was not charged. In spite of strong consumer interest in electric vehicles, most automakers and their dealerships still refuse to actively market them to customers.

This is the year that automakers must prove their claims of innovation go beyond greenwashing by accelerating the electric vehicle market. Even as the Washington Auto Show begins, a dangerous rollback of the clean car standards is being rushed through review at the White House. If those efforts are successful, this rollback would increase carbon emissions by up to 1,300 million metric tons. If automakers truly care about the future as they often claim, they must strongly support the clean car standards.

The automotive future is electric and will be powered by clean energy. Automakers asleep at the wheel today will wake up tomorrow to find that it has passed them right by. Just ask Maxwell, Peerless, Wayne, or White.

Michael Brune is the executive director of the Sierra Club (@SierraClub).