Easing regulations on automakers unlikely to give US edge on imports

Financially pressed US automakers are finding some cold-cash comfort in the recent ease-up of car environmental and safety regulations. But the changes announced by Prsident Carter several weeks ago, even if enhanced by other still under consideration on Capitol Hill, are unlikely to give the United States auto industry a competitive edge over imports, point out industry observers. And consumer and safety groups are concerned that the regulation-hacking may not be in the public's best interest.

Aside from a specific $500 million savings expected over the next five years (due to the relaxation of high-altitude emissions standards announced by Mr. Carter), the US auto industry has nor eady estimte available of the savings expected by loosening the rules. One reason is that many changes are still far from settled. Congress is still deciding, for instance, about extending or easing up on yearly fuel-economy standards. And whatever the figure is, observers note, the dollar effect of the changes will be made less noticeable in the midst of the industry's $80 billion five-year small car production program.

"A general slowing down of regulation gives us some breathing space and is welcome, but the flow-through of benefits will take some time," observers American Motors Corporation spokesman George Thompson.

Imported cars must meet the same safety and environmental regulations as their US competitors. In one regulatory area, passenger safety, this may mean the imports will be forced to pioneer the development of a low-cost air bag. A compromise auto-safety bill, expected to be voted on by the US House and Senate within the next two weeks, for the first time specifically calls on the five manufacturers with the largest sales in this country to offer the air-bag option on at least one car line in the 1983-85 model years.

One US manufacturer, Ford Motor Company, already has announced that its more expensive and larger Lincoln line (which should be able to bury the cost in its high price tag) will offer the air bag. But Toyota, Datsun, and Volkswagen of America, which sell only small cars in this country, face no such choice. They will be forced to offer air bags on one of their small-car lines and, to remain competitive, will be challenged to find a way to keep the cost to $200 a car or less. (General Motors president E. M. Estes has estimated the cost of air bags in his company's cars at $600-$800 per car.)

The automobile industry has long been pressing Washington for relief from burdensome regulations. Mr. Carter, on his brief visit to Detroit last month, promised a review of safety and fuel-economy standards, no new major safety regulations this year, and a speedup by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in granting waivers review being faster as long as it doesn't mean that it becomes more superficial and that many more waiver requests end up granted," notes John Reynolds of the Environmental Defense Fund. "We were assured [by EPA officials] that the quality of the review would be just as high."

Environmentalists are wary of what the changes could mean over the long run but appear generally satisfied that they make little difference for now

"We didn't feel that they were overwhelming changes that amounted to any great step backward," says Ray Pomerance, president of the Friends of the Earth.

Much more concerned are consumer leaders in auto safety. Congress is weighing some major changes in the timetable and specific demands of seat-belt and air-bag legislation. Originally, car companies were to begin with the 1982 model year by offering on all large models either a seat belt that automatically envelops passengers as they step into the car or an air bag that springs out from the dashboard in the event of a crash

The compromise bill, which is attached to a highway safety authorization bill , would delay the start of the plan to 1983, begin with small rather than large cars (requiring either an air bag or automatic seat belt), and force major automakers to offer the air bag on at least one model line. The new bill also would ease bumper pushed for he delay, consumer leaders are generally pleased that small, rather than large, cars must offer the option first.

To Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, the question is the seriousness of Congress's intent:

"If it's a bargain that's stuck to and kept, it's a good bargain," he says. "But if it's just one more delay to be followed by another, then we're in trouble."

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