Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

The summer of 2009 will, for me, be the Summer of Clunkers. The federal government’s “cash for clunkers” program, which allowed consumers to trade in an old gas-guzzling car for a somewhat less gas-guzzling replacement, had its problems. The paperwork required for dealers to receive reimbursements from the government was confusing, and deals were completed much more quickly than expected.

Almost no one seemed to understand exactly what the rules were. And buried in the 136 pages of those rules was a vague statement that entitled many consumers to more money than they got. (See p. 93 here). The Boston Globe quoted a spokesperson from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which ran the cash for clunkers program, as stating that after dealers took $50 to cover administrative costs, that the remainder of a vehicle’s scrap value was “negotiable between the consumer and the dealer.”

The scrap value is much less than the typical trade-in value of a vehicle. In exchange for the government subsidy of $3,500 or $4,500, consumers waived the routine trade-in process, but residual scrap value, depending on the age and condition of the vehicle could be several hundred dollars. Dealers were required to disclose the scrap value to consumers before completion of the deal.

Some dealers handed the residual scrap value over as a matter of course, but many did not. And deals were already complicated with quite a bit of confusion from consumers and dealers about how the trades were supposed to work. Public Citizen requested additional information about the program through a Freedom of Information Act request, but information about the scrap value was not disclosed, so we can’t make a guess at the total scrap value.

Lena Pons is a transportation policy analyst for Public Citizen.

Flickr photo by billaday.

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Whether it was pushing for health care reform, reigning in Wall Street or keeping dangerous prescription pills off the market, Public Citizen’s researchers, analysts and lobbyists have been on the front lines, standing up to corporate power and holding government accountable.

We don’t have deep corporate pockets backing us like our opponents do (Public Citizen maintains its fierce independence by not taking any corporate or government money), but what we do have is the support of our members, activists and people like you. You’ve answered the call time and time again by signing our petitions, calling your members of Congress and giving what you can during these tough economic times.

We could not do our work without your support. So, from all of us at Public Citizen, thank you and happy holidays! Please help us continue protecting health, safety and democracy, contribute today.

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The Environmental Protection Agency  announced today that it would defer deciding on a request by Growth Energy, an ethanol trade group, to increase the allowable blending percent of ethanol in gasoline from 10 to 15 percent.  Public Citizen commented in July on the petition, strongly urging that EPA deny the request for a waiver.

EPA’s decision to defer the decision until the Department of Energy’s  tests of long-term durability and reliability of vehicles running a higher ethanol percentage is completed.  The final report is expected in August 2010, and EPA states in its letter to Growth Energy that it expects to evaluate interim reports and make a determination “mid-year” to potentially allow 15 percent ethanol for vehicles built after 2001.

Public Citizen strongly opposes allowing 15 percent ethanol to enter the fuel stream for vehicles built after 2001.  This assumes vehicles with sophisticated emissions control systems, which are capable of adjusting to higher ethanol content.  But Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimates that 50 percent (more…)

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GM’s 60-day return offer will close out at the end of November. The message – may the best car win – would be a good way to re-introduce GM to the American people. But the New GM looks a lot like the Old GM: “no strings attached” apparently doesn’t include red tape.

GM offered new car buyers a chance to try out a GM vehicle for what it presented as an extended test drive. Come in, get a GM vehicle, try it for 60 days, and if you don’t like it, you can bring it back. At least, that was the idea.

But click through to the Details and Limitations, and you’ll discover why less than 0.1 percent of consumers who bought a car through this program returned it. To return the car successfully you must have kept it for at least 30 days and “Your Eligible Vehicle must have no more than $200 of damage as determined by GM or GM’s agent. Such damage may include, without limitation, internal or external scratches, scrapes, dents, odors, rips, burns, etc.”

So that’s at least 30 days of wear and tear, and GM gets to decide whether the scratches and “odors” that your car has accumulated in that time cost more than $200, based on criteria it did not disclose. Oh, and “GM’s agent” that does those return inspections is GM’s insurance company.

Don’t like the assessment that the GM inspector made of how much damage has been done to your car? You’ll have to take it up in arbitration. Then a company of GM’s choosing will make a determination about whether the inspection has been conducted fairly.

Oh, and if you did manage to jump through the hoops and return the car, the global VP for engineering will personally call you and ask why.

This is no way to re-introduce GM to the American people. Unless the message is: We’re still the same company.

Lena Pons is a transportation policy analyst for Public Citizen.

Flickr photo by cobalt123.

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Now that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has come up for air after a mad dash to reimburse dealers for cash for clunkers transactions completed in July and August, the agency has started to release (some) of the real data. And it looks like the glowing sound bytes of last month are giving way to some much less encouraging realities.

Let’s look at how the clunkers program shakes out now that the numbers are in. (more…)

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The Obama administration proposed a historic step forward yesterday that would reduce our nation’s oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The proposed standards it announced for fuel economy and emissions would save 1.3 million barrels of oil per day in 2020 and save drivers about $26 billion per year in 2020, based on the current price of gas. Under the proposal, automakers would have to raise the average gas mileage across their fleets to 35.5 miles per gallon and reduce carbon dioxide to 250 grams per mile by 2016.

At the same time, the proposal must be improved before it is finalized because it offers auto manufacturers too many opportunities to evade proposed fuel economy gains. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) must ensure that the rule’s fuel savings are realized by limiting auto manufacturers’ ability to undercut fuel economy gains. In the past, the auto industry has done everything in its power to weaken critical safety and environmental regulations. The EPA and NHTSA should guard against history repeating itself. (more…)

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My name is Robert Weissman, and I am very excited to join Public Citizen as its new president.

For nearly 40 years, Public Citizen has pioneered cutting-edge advocacy on the crucial issues of the day. As a result, we all are a lot safer and healthier, our government works for more people and our democracy functions better.

But for all we’ve achieved, powerful corporate interests have managed to shape the policy agenda. On each of the top-line issues of the day – climate change, health care and financial re-regulation – corporate interests are blocking the changes we need for a more just and ecologically sustainable future. The majority whip in the Senate even says the banks “own the place.”

We can’t allow Big Business to continue to set the agenda and write the rules. And we won’t.

As we look forward to the challenges ahead, Public Citizen will continue to do everything it has done so well for nearly four decades.

We are going to do some other things, too. We will be more creative on the Internet. We will develop new ways to work with you, so that together we build new forms of citizen power. We will invest more in organizing people, both online and on-the-ground. Together, we will innovate ways to change the way Washington works.

For the past 20 years, I’ve worked on corporate accountability projects at Essential Action and the Center for Study of Responsive Law here in Washington, D.C. I’ve also edited a magazine, Multinational Monitor, which tracks the activities of multinational corporations and reports on the global economy. I’ve seen the panoply of organizations working on consumer, environmental and corporate accountability issues. Public Citizen has always stood out for its extraordinarily talented and committed staff, with deep expertise in a wide set of issues. I’m thrilled to join this team.

Public Citizen has also been unique for its fierce independence, its commitment to advancing the public interest across a broad issue spectrum, and its insistence on focusing on root problems and solutions. I promise that we’ll maintain those characteristics as we go forward.

For 27 years, Joan Claybrook provided Public Citizen with inspirational leadership, boundless energy and good humor, strategic vision and the force of her personality. She has been deeply committed to advancing health and safety, defending victims of corporate wrongdoing, and campaigning for a better and more responsive democracy. I am deeply honored to follow in her footsteps. She remains on our board and will continue to guide us.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank you for the generosity you have shown to Public Citizen. Your commitment and dedication are what allow this organization to thrive, and I hope it will continue for years to come. Public Citizen is an organization that belongs to all of us.

I am humbled by the enormity of the task ahead but know that with your help, we will build new forms of citizen power together. Please tell me what you’d like to see in Public Citizen’s future by posting a comment below or sending an email to president@citizen.org. I’d love to hear from you.

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daimler-chrysler-logoIn a reversal of its position in the bankruptcy proceeding, Chrysler has agreed to assume liability for people injured after the Chrysler bankruptcy by vehicles sold before the bankruptcy.

As background, in late May and early June, Public Citizen represented a bunch of consumer organizations in objecting to the Chrysler bankruptcy sale because the sale documents purported to sell Chrysler “free and clear” of product liability claims. We particularly got involved to represent the interests of future claimants — that is, the claims of people who would be injured or killed in accidents that occurred after the bankruptcy but were caused by defects in Chrysler vehicles sold before the bankruptcy. The bankruptcy court approved the sale free and clear of such future claims, and I argued the issue in front of the Second Circuit. Within minutes after that argument ended, the Court announced that it was upholding the sale for substantially the same reasons as the bankruptcy court and that opinions would be forthcoming. Four days later, we filed a petition for certiorari. (more…)

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The New York Times Wheels blog ran a piece about three small, highly fuel efficient cars that were named Top Safety Picks by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). For going on three decades, there has been a perception that small cars are less safe. This perception is based on a vastly oversimplified view of crash physics, and the attitude that nothing can be done to improve small car safety has frustrated calls for increasing fuel economy. (more…)

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Today General Motors made yet another big, splashy announcement about the Chevy Volt – complete with a hip-to-the-youngsters viral marketing campaign. This time the news is that GM estimates that the Volt will get 230 miles per gallon in city driving.

So…what does that mean? For the plug-in hybrid Volt, it’s anyone’s guess. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates fuel economy ratings for electric vehicles by measuring the efficiency of the vehicle running on electricity and converting to miles per gallon. (For more details on this see this piece by the Society of Automotive Engineers.) (more…)

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