PRESIDENT Obama's historic proposal to create tough national standards for automobile emissions and fuel efficiency should banish - we hope forever - the culture of denial that has dominated the American auto industry for more than three decades.
Historically, the production of big vehicles - giant pickups, vans, and sport-utility vehicles - was fueled on the manufacturers' side by the desire for the big profit margins that came with those vehicles and on the consumers' side with the unrealistic belief that cheap gasoline would always be available.
Car makers eagerly marketed and fed into the belief of many people that bigger, wider, faster, more powerful vehicles are sexier, more macho, and ultimately more American.
Not even short-term crises such as last summer's $4 per gallon gasoline could wean the public from its industry fueled addiction to powerful automobiles. When gas prices plummeted, buyer interest in Smart cars, hybrids, and other small, fuel-efficient vehicles also declined.
Now, the auto industry - and not just domestic car makers - is being forced to break with a myopic past and reinvent itself in the midst of a world economic crisis. This isn't big government hijacking market forces - as some apologists in Detroit would have it - but a slap of reality after decades of depending on cheap gas to subsidize the industry.
For years, the Big Three automakers - as well as their friends in Congress, such as Rep John Dingell (D., Mich.) - fought higher fuel efficiency standards at every turn. It can't be done, they claimed, it will destroy the industry. We're only responding to consumer demand.
Such blind resistance resulted in the system of two levels of emission controls - one for California and one for the other 49 states - that cost the industry dearly and would be rectified by the Obama plan. The drive for short-term profit also cost Detroit its place atop the world auto industry in terms of product innovation.
The current sluggish demand for oil that has kept pump prices relatively low will not last and only makes the proposed standards more timely.
Burgeoning auto markets in China and India, where millions of new drivers are hitting the road every year, eventually will put demand for petroleum, and therefore the cost of gas, in the fast lane once again. Those millions of new drivers also will speed up emissions that are polluting the air we breathe.
These challenges can't be met by yesterday's gas-guzzling vehicles. The standards President Obama has proposed - 35.5 miles per gallon fleet averages by 2016 and reducing vehicle carbon dioxide emissions by some 30 percent over the same period - may yet prove to be insufficient but they should give the American people the needed impetus to at last free themselves from their shameful dependence on foreign oil.
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