The American automobile business has been treated well the last dozen years.
Under the Clinton administration, Washington was kind to the companies that sell cars and trucks in America. And before that, the Bush administration was just as helpful to Detroit and the imports.
Oh, sure, we have new airbag directives; emissions regulations have been rewritten; and rollover rules are getting a lot of attention. But nothing has been done on another matter that is of utmost importance to the auto industry: corporate average fuel economy.
There is a certain irony in the fact that during the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton, little or nothing was done on CAFE. Now that the Republicans are in control of the House and the executive branch, it looks as if there is going to be some real movement on that subject.
Right now there is a moratorium on changing CAFE. That moratorium will expire in the fall. And when it expires, you can be almost certain there will be new CAFE standards for trucks.
Remember that nearly half of all the vehicles sold in the United States are trucks. We're talking about pickups, sport-utilities, minivans and big vans and some of the new hybrids or crossover vehicles.
Once upon a time, trucks were used by guys who worked in construction and farming. So the government thought it made sense to have a different standard for those working trucks.
Well, that simply isn't true anymore. The truck category includes vehicles driven by soccer moms and carrying a lot of families. Those vehicles are used for family transportation, and it makes sense to increase their CAFE. It also makes sense to have identical safety standards for all cars and trucks.
It will be interesting to see the posture that the vehicle manufacturers take during this period when new CAFE standards are proposed for trucks.
This is an opportunity for the auto companies to admit they have the technology to improve the mileage of their trucks and to be a bit statesmanlike.
We don't need a lot of wailing about how any change in truck CAFE is going to put thousands of people out of work. It simply isn't true, and if the Detroit auto companies whine a lot about their plight, they will lose what little credibility they have in Washington.
They have had a dozen years to prepare for the obvious. Truck standards are going to get tougher. If the makers haven't done anything about it during those years, they have themselves to blame.
Now they can be gracious and become leaders rather than antagonists. It will be their choice.