GM fought safety, emissions rules, but then invented ways to comply
Klimisch was a 29-year-old chemical engineer. At DuPont, he had worked with catalysts — substances that trigger chemical reactions.
DuPont used catalysts to help create compounds for synthetic fabrics — or as Klimisch likes to say, for making women's underwear. At GM, catalysts would provide the key to cleaning vehicle exhaust.
"I sold myself as one of the world's catalyst experts," Klimisch told Automotive News. "I thought, 'Wow, what an incredible opportunity, to work for the biggest auto company in the world on this wonderful problem.' "
The mechanical engineers made fun of "Captain Catalyst." But eventually he, they and others at GM developed the catalytic converter now found on most vehicles. The device, which debuted on 1975 models, changes exhaust pollutants into compounds that occur naturally in the atmosphere, allowing vehicles to run better, cleaner and on less fuel.
Klimisch credits the leadership of former GM President Ed Cole, whom he calls "a towering genius."
The catalytic converter is a leading example of GM's role in limiting the harmful effects of vehicles on society and the environment. The company, while generally opposed to government regulation, has developed key technologies used industrywide to improve safety and reduce pollution.
Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer group Public Citizen, is a persistent critic of the auto industry and especially GM. But she acknowledges that GM executives have worked to do the right thing on a number of issues, sometimes ahead of regulation.
"In the very late '60s and early '70s, they really were leaders," Claybrook says.
Claybrook, an early ally of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President Carter. She notes that GM was the first automaker to install beams in vehicle doors voluntarily to protect occupants in side-impact crashes. The GM design became the basis of a federal safety standard for side impacts, she adds.
Claybrook applauds Cole, GM's president from 1967 to 1974, for advocating installation of front-impact airbags well ahead of regulatory requirements. Data from airbags used in 1974 GM vehicles provided the basis for a subsequent federal standard, she says.
Claybrook credits Pete Estes, GM's president during her tenure at NHTSA, with at least being available and offering to be constructive. In 1980, Estes even promised to raise the average fuel economy of GM cars to 30 mpg by 1985, Claybrook says.
But circumstances changed: Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, the price of gasoline fell, and the promise was forgotten, Claybrook says.
Even as she cites some GM contributions, Claybrook contends that the company's steady resistance to higher fuel economy standards since the 1980s "has caused real harm" to GM and other automakers and to the nation.
That resistance was shelved last year, when GM and others in the industry — resigned to defeat and fearing the prospect of something more stringent — agreed to a 40 percent increase in fuel economy by 2020. Congress made clear it would set the new standard with or without industry accord.
GM was the first automaker to join the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. The group advocates a national cap on emissions of greenhouse gas, such as carbon dioxide, from burning fuel in vehicles. Potentially, it would be one of the most sweeping regulations ever.
Beth Lowery, GM's vice president for environment, energy and safety, says she would not change the positions the company took in the past. She says she would have tried harder to educate the public and policymakers about GM's positive contributions.
"At General Motors, we have some of the best research and development people in the world," Lowery says. "We're always looking at what can be the next technologies and how you bring those out in vehicles that customers can afford."
Lowery adds: "At certain periods of time, regulations do make sense."
GM executives have not always taken such a benign view of regulation.
Jim Johnston, a longtime head of GM's Washington office, wrote a book called Driving America after he retired. In the 1997 book, Johnston said government "has overstepped the line in its enthusiasm to regulate."
Johnston warned that regulations threaten not only the ability of consumers to get the vehicles they need and want but also their right to personal mobility.
Bill Noack spent nearly 40 years with GM, much of that time as the voice of the company's Washington office. He says GM's record of developing safety equipment goes back to Alfred Sloan's leadership in the 1920s and 1930s.
But Noack says GM was largely unprepared for the tidal wave of regulation that began in response to safety issues in the mid-1960s. The regulatory movement was an outgrowth of social and environmental activism of the period, he adds.
To this day, Noack says, GM does not get the credit it deserves for creating devices such as airbags and catalytic converters, which enabled the industry to comply with regulations.
No easy task
Klimisch, the retired catalyst expert, agrees that Americans do not appreciate the technological hurdles GM had to overcome to meet federal regulations. Control of tailpipe emissions required not just catalytic converters but also unleaded fuel, fuel injection, oxygen sensors and onboard computers, he says.
Even geopolitics was an obstacle, Klimisch notes. Building catalytic converters required precious metals. But the only sources at the time were the Soviet Union, then under communist control, and South Africa, where racial segregation was in effect.
Only after several years, deals were cut and a 3,000-foot-deep mine with 20,000 workers opened in South Africa, Klimisch recalls.
Klimisch left GM in 1993 to work for the Big 3 lobbying organization, called the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. He later became vice president of the Aluminum Association. Today he is a volunteer teacher at a Detroit charter school.
Klimisch rejects suggestions that regulation was the key to stimulating technological progress. He gives the credit to ingenuity and immense effort by private companies, notably GM.
Simply put, Klimisch said: "We went through hell."