Reagan regulators ease controls on auto industry

When Ronald Reagan was running for president, one of his major campaign promises was to push for a general deregulation of the automobile industry.

Now, nearly two years after Mr. Reagan took office, a poll of the five major carmakers indicates only sparse progress has been made. Some of the regulations to which the industry objects most strenuously are still slated to take effect over the next few years.

Automakers agree, however, that there has been a big change in the attitude of federal administrators.

In brief, the adversarial atmosphere that characterized relations between auto executives and Washington regulators is, for the most part, gone, industry spokesmen say. There's a growing feeling that the government can and should cooperate to help the nation's largest industry out of its current recession.

As a matter of fact, there are in legislative hoppers and other channels an estimated 105 potential rules, regulations, or laws to make the regulations more palatable to auto manufacturers.

Further on the plus side, in the industry view, is the revision of passenger-car bumper-strength rules from the present 5-miles-an-hour requirement to the 2.5-mile level that the industry has long wanted. This will apply to both front and rear bumpers.

Spokesmen for both Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation say this rule change will result in first-year savings to car buyers of about $35. General Motors Corporation, in testimony before a congressional committee, put the estimated bumper saving at about $50.

For 1984 and later model cars, re-engineering of bumper systems will bring the design further toward the 2.5-mile criteria for additional weight and manufacturing cost reductions. For 1983 models, the quick engineering response was to remove no-longer-required parts without redesigning the system.

One of the standards the auto industry most wants deleted is that which requires passive restraints, either air bags or passive seat belts. Administratively, that rule was deleted earlier this year, but proponents of passive-safety systems went to court and had the regulation reinstated.

In reaction, the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, representing domestic carmakers, and the Automobile Importers Association, acting for the foreign automakers, have petitioned the US Supreme Court to overturn the passive-restraint rule.

Joining in the action are Consumer Alert and the Pacific Legal Foundation.

Unless the Supreme Court acts to reverse the decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the regulation is to become effective with the 1984 models, a deadline the automakers call ''impossible'' because there simply isn't the needed ''lead time'' to design air bags or passive belts into the cars.

Estimates of the added cost of air bags or passive belts varies from carmaker to carmaker, but in all cases the sums to be added to sticker prices are substantial.

Ford's Helen Petraukas, executive director of automotive emissions and safety , estimates air bags will add $500 to a new car's selling price. That figure, she reports, is based on annual production of 1 million autos fitted with air bags. Passive seat belts, which work automatically and need no ''buckle up,'' will cost about $100 more than today's belt system, Miss Petraukas adds.

Volkswagen of America is also opposed to federal regulations requiring passive restraints, reports Dietmar K. Haenchen, executive engineer for vehicle regulations for VWOA.

VW was the first major world carmaker to offer passive seat belts on selected models - the Rabbit and Jetta.

Marvin W. Stucky, American Motors vice-president for governmental affairs, says AMC ''is in favor of automotive regulations that result in improved safety while being cost effective.''

Robert Everett and Gerry Stofflet, each an assistant director of automotive emission controls at GM, point to 32 items that they would like to see deregulated to reduce the complexity and cost of future motor vehicles.

Asked to choose two of the more costly federal regulations now on the books, Messrs. Everett and Stofflet point to future emissions standards for gasoline engines in heavy-duty trucks and to rules limiting the amount of particulates (soot) that may be expelled by passenger-car diesel engines.

As emission standards now stand, heavy-duty gasoline engines are going to need catalytic converters, they say. The problem is that heavy-duty gasoline engines for trucks, unlike car engines, operate most of the time at or near peak-rated horsepower. That calls for a very large catalytic converter that is much more durable than a car unit. As a result, it will be proportionately more costly.

If federal rulemakers accept emission levels that are slightly more flexible, the catalytic converter will not be required for these trucks. Based on a 250, 000-a-year production schedule, truck buyers will save from $600 million to $1 billion, according to the two GM engineers.

More important even than the controversial oxides-of-nitrogen (NOx) emissions of car diesel engines is the requirement that will limit particulates expelled into the atmosphere to 0.2 gram per mile. As things now stand this standard takes effect in 1985.

Everett and Stofflet have proposed that the present 0.6-gram-per-mile limit be continued through 1985. Then it would be possible, they say, to reduce the limt to 0.4 gram per mile without adding substantial cost to diesel-powered cars. If the 0.2-gram limit is implemented in 1985, as scheduled, it may force the diesel-fueled automobile off the road, according to the GM spokesmen.

Chrysler Corporation's Chris Kennedy, director of federal government affairs, says the automaker will need about two months of 1983-model production before it is able to take advantage of the new 2.5-mile bumper rule. In October or November there will be a running change when about 10 pounds of total weight will be removed from front and rear bumpers.

For 1984 models, re-engineering will remove further weight and cost.

''Chrysler believes the 2.5-mile bumper is more than adequate, and will produce savings ($35), plus a slight fuel economy improvement from total lower weight, when bumpers are completely re-engineered,'' Mr. Kennedy says.

''The public won't stand for the price which auto manufacturers will have to charge for air-bag systems,'' he declares.

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