Opinion: General Motors touts innovation, yet rejects industry regulations

John DeCicco

General Motors earned some glowing headlines with a pair of post-election environmental announcements.

On Nov. 19, CEO Mary Barra touted GM's amped-up plan to expand its electric vehicle offerings. The following Monday, her letter to green-group leaders signaled that GM is pulling out of the lawsuit to block California and other states from setting clean car standards stronger than the federal standards that GM and its industry allies had previously gotten the Trump administration to greatly weaken. 

It’s an encouraging development, though long overdue. Conspicuously absent from the announcements is a mention of what is really needed to make climate protection progress — namely, putting clean car standards back on track with steeply declining limits on climate pollution across the entire new automobile fleet. If GM is serious about being a leader in innovation and growing good American jobs in the industry of the future, it must publicly support much stronger clean car standards. 

GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra touted  the company's amped-up plan to expand its electric vehicle offerings, DeCicco writes.

Transportation is the nation's largest source of climate-disrupting carbon emissions. A steady clampdown on tailpipes is the most important move the country can make to drive these emissions to zero. Fleet-wide standards are a cost-effective way to ensure that all of the technologies in the automotive engineering arsenal — including electrification — are used across the entire market, not just in a few green niches, to cut emissions sooner rather than later. 

GM clearly has the ability to innovate and develop the low- and no-emissions vehicles that our future needs. Sadly, the company has a history of touting innovation while at the same time fighting the regulations needed to ensure that its technology advances truly serve the cause of clean air.

A generation ago, the Clinton administration subsidized $1 billion worth of research in its partnership with the then-Big Three automakers. But those taxpayer-supported innovations didn't deliver cleaner cars to the marketplace because GM and its allies successfully lobbied to block stronger efficiency standards for over a decade. 

Fast forward to 2010, and the company was again in the vanguard of transportation electrification as it introduced the Chevy Volt. The critically revered car was named North American Car of the Year in 2011. Despite being on the forefront of the industry’s evolution, once President Donald Trump was elected, GM led the lobbying to gut the clear-car standards and backed that administration's anti-environmental agenda.   

The incoming Biden administration will have a huge task at hand to right the many wrongs perpetrated by Trump and his enablers. Not the least of such harms is the clean car standards rollback made at the automakers' behest. 

GM's cross-town rival came to take a different tack. Ford, along with Honda, BMW and VW, negotiated a plan with California to keep advancing stronger standards. GM, Toyota, Fiat-Chrysler and other firms that backed Trump's rollback need to join that constructive effort.

The Alliance of Automotive Innovation, the main trade group of automakers, has also signaled that the industry plans to collaborate with the Biden administration. The only way automakers can show they are truly serious about climate protection is if they work with policymakers — indeed, publicly advocate — to reinstate strong, nationwide clean car standards. 

John DeCicco is a University of Michigan research professor emeritus.