Commentary

There isn’t a whole lot of support in Washington for the domestic auto industry these days. But there is one small concession the Feds could dole out to Detroit that would save it a lot of time and money selling fuel efficient-vehicles in the U.S.

Thanks to heavy fuel taxes in Europe, auto makers sell a lineup of vehicles there that get great mileage. That’s why GM and Ford want to start building a number of their European models in the U.S. But it’s going to take them several years to accomplish, with most of that time eaten up modifying those cars to meet U.S. emissions and safety regulations.

Why force them to alter the cars? Why not let auto makers build exactly what they sell in Europe over here?

This is the perfect time for Congress to give the Detroit Three a temporary freeze on safety and emissions regulations. As long as a car meets the Euro 5 emission regulations and European NCAP safety standards, let them build those vehicles in the U.S. with no other changes.

Give auto makers a temporary reprieve, a 5-year window, to make those Euro-spec vehicles here. After that, they would have to meet whatever U.S. standards are on the books.

This one-time freeze would not imperil the lives or livelihood of any American citizen. European regulations are stringent. It’s not as if we’d see traffic fatalities shoot up or air quality degrade to any measurable degree.

There is a political precedent. Back in 1980, when the domestic auto industry was actually in more trouble than it is today, President Carter froze certain emission and safety standards to help the car companies as they struggled to turn around. It was a temporary freeze that was lifted after a couple of years.

I’m told Mexico already does this sort of thing. Any car that meets U.S. or European standards can automatically be sold in Mexico.

To get the unions to buy into this, we should not allow cars that meet European specs to be imported; they would have to be built in North America to qualify for the waiver.

This would be a very simple way for Congress to help the auto industry, with no bailouts or write-offs involved. It would not cost the taxpayer one cent, but it would help Detroit auto makers put fuel-efficient cars in their showrooms a whole lot faster.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and Speed Channel.