At the time, a business model that relied on selling more and more of the biggest and heaviest passenger vehicles drove the companies into financial distress when gas prices spiked, climate consciousness increased and drivers went looking for alternatives.
"GM went into bankruptcy with a promise to stop making so many bigger cars and start making littler cars," said Maryann Keller, an analyst who has been tracking fuel-economy issues for three decades. As long as gas is cheap and government incentives for driving low-emission vehicles are limited, however, persuading drivers to buy them is a challenge.
"The United States stands alone on this," she said. "Other countries are moving forward. ... Electric vehicles do not sell themselves. They are sold because there is government policy that supports their purchase."
Some of the same firms lobbying to slow the transition here are racing to update their offerings abroad, where the evolution to newer technologies is much further along.
California Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary Nichols called it "ironic" that the companies are not focusing their lobbying on policies that promote the use of the vehicles.
"At the same time they're complaining that they're having a hard time with meeting the fuel-economy standards, the industry is rushing to meet the demands from Asia and Europe, and not just California, for all kinds of electric vehicles," she said.
Wall Street analysts say the transition to cleaner engines is inevitable here, too, as all the major auto companies plan for a future in which the internal combustion engine becomes obsolete. The question is how far America will lag behind other nations in weaning itself off big cars and trucks, and how much that lag will undermine the fight against climate change.
Currently, automakers sell 150 types of electric vehicles and hybrids worldwide, according to Adam Fowler of Beacon Economics. Only about 25 of them can be found in showrooms in tech- and climate-conscious San Francisco and Los Angeles. In most states, he said, buyers will find only seven of those clean-tech cars and trucks on offer.
Environmentalists are having a tough time persuading a climate-skeptical administration that that is a problem. So they are turning their fire on the auto companies.
The Sierra Club and the Safe Climate Campaign are unleashing on Ford, rallying public pressure on the company to support the current fuel standard. As the Washington Auto Show got underway, the groups released a video accusing Ford of driving the nation backward, punctuated with a driver whose SUV joltingly flies into reverse and transforms into an antiquated, low-tech Model T.
"We are targeting the auto companies because it is hard to target this administration," Becker said. "What can we say about the harm they are doing that they are not already out there saying themselves?"
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