WASHINGTON - Most of the automobile industry shudders at a Senate proposal to place a national cap on the total amount of fuel that can be consumed by Americans' cars and trucks.
Honda's Ed Cohen says, 'In theory, it's a terrific idea.'
Most of the industry is trying to figure out ways to block an increase in Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards without looking like environmental backsliders.
'The prospect of new CAFE (standards) does not trouble Honda in the least,' Cohen said.
Honda North America Inc., which has been steering an independent course for itself in Washington, has found in Cohen an unconventional lobbyist to represent the automaker.
Cohen, 51, is Honda's vice president of government and industry relations, appointed last September. The company did not make a formal announcement of the appointment. He gradually has been making his presence known.
And in some minds, Honda's views - expressed by Cohen - contribute to the mixed message that policy makers are getting from the industry, a message that makes higher fuel economy standards more likely.
'If public policy decision makers decide that we need a fuel economy increase, we're certainly not going to complain about it,' Cohen said. 'The important thing is how it is structured.'
Honda's position is based in part on its competitive advantage. Its vehicles already average about 32 mpg, well beyond the standards of 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 for trucks and significantly above the industry average of 24.
Out of the alliance
But Cohen said the position also is a principled one, based on 'the importance of the environment to what we do and the implications on society of the products we produce.'
Honda is the only major automaker that is not a member of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. It remains a member of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers. While it has not ruled out joining the alliance, Cohen said, 'We appreciate the opportunity to be able to express our view candidly on these issues.'
An eight-second buzz
Cohen is by no means new to automotive subjects. In fact, he claims to be the person responsible for the eight-second seat-belt buzzer or chime that goes off every time a motor vehicle is started.
As a young Senate staffer in the mid-1970s, Cohen said he had been approached by an inventor pushing the idea of the warning device as an alternative to the widely despised seat-belt interlock systems that were required in 1974 model year .
During a subsequent negotiation among lawmakers concerning details of a new transportation law, some members wanted to kill the interlock requirement and others wanted to preserve its safety aspect. Cohen threw out the idea of an eight-second warning, and the lawmakers put it in the legislation.
Cohen also served in the Jimmy Carter White House. He is a former member of the board of the Center for Auto Safety, a Ralph Nader-founded organization that has frequently been at odds with automakers. He was in private law practice for 13 years, often dealing with automotive subjects. And, on two occasions, he was considered by the Clinton administration as a possible nominee to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
His father, Stanley Cohen, was the longtime Washington editor of Advertising Age, sister publication of Automotive News.
He is married to Charlene Barshefsky, U.S. Trade Representative during the second Clinton term.
Cohen said he marveled at a phrase in President Bush's energy policy, unveiled in May. It made reference to the possible 'disparate impact' of higher fuel economy standards on 'the U.S. versus foreign fleet of automobiles.'
Showing he is fully initiated into the Honda way of thinking, Cohen said that the environment doesn't distinguish between domestic and import brands. And he said a company that builds more than 1 million vehicles annually in North America and employs 19,000 Americans ought not to be categorized unfairly.