President Barack Obama's historic proposal to create tough national standards for automobile emissions and fuel efficiency should banish - we hope forever - the culture of denial that has dominated the American auto industry for more than three decades.
Historically, the production of big vehicles - giant pickups, vans and sport-utility vehicles - was fueled on the manufacturers' side by the desire for the big profit margins that came with those vehicles and on the consumers' side with the unrealistic belief that cheap gasoline would always be available.
Carmakers eagerly marketed and fed into the belief of many people that bigger, wider, faster, more powerful vehicles are sexier, more macho and ultimately more American.
Not even short-term crises such as last summer's $4-per-gallon gasoline could wean the public from its industry-fueled addiction to powerful automobiles. When gas prices plummeted from their recent peak, buyer interest in Smart cars, hybrids and other small, fuel-efficient vehicles also declined.
Now, the auto industry - and not just domestic carmakers - is being forced to break with a myopic past and reinvent itself in the midst of a world economic crisis. This isn't big government hijacking market forces - as some apologists in Detroit would have it - but a slap of reality after decades of depending on cheap gas to subsidize an industry.
On Tuesday the Obama administration proposed that U.S. automakers attain fuel efficiencies of 39 miles per gallon for cars and 30 for light trucks by 2016 and cut vehicle carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent over the same period. The latest fuel economy targets are 27.5 mpg for cars and 23.1 for trucks.
For years, the Big Three automakers - as well as their friends in Congress, such as Rep. John Dingel, D-Mich. - fought higher fuel efficiency standards at every turn. It can't be done, they claimed, it will destroy the industry. We're only responding to consumer demand.
This drive for short-term profit also cost Detroit its place atop the world auto industry in terms of product innovation.
The current sluggish demand for oil that has kept pump prices relatively low will not last and only makes the proposed standards more timely.
Burgeoning auto markets in China and India, where millions of new drivers are hitting the road every year, eventually will put demand for petroleum, and therefore the cost of gas, in the fast lane once again. Those millions of new drivers also will speed up emissions that are polluting the air we breathe.
These challenges can't be met by yesterday's gas-guzzling vehicles. The standards proposed by President Obama may yet prove to be insufficient, but they should give the American people the needed impetus to at last free themselves from their shameful dependence on foreign oil.
For California and those 13 states (including Pennsylvania) that chose to adopt its tougher standards on vehicle emissions on cars and light trucks, Mr. Obama's action was vindication. The new standard, which targets the tailpipe pollution that contributes to global warming, is basically the California standard.
Some misguided lawmakers in Harrisburg fought hard against the state for following California's lead on vehicle emissions, but, thank goodness, they did not prevail. The result is Pennsylvania today stands in the vanguard of positive change.