Astroturfing to fight mileage standards

The automobile industry is investing “way north” of one million dollars to gin up grass roots opposition to the Senate proposals for moving automobile fuel standards to 35 miles by 2020.

As per the Detroit News

Despite rising gas prices and a growing concern about climate change, the auto industry is going on the offensive to convince Americans to oppose dramatically higher fuel economy requirements.

There is so much wrong here that it is hard to know where to start … the outrage meter is in the red zone …

The Detroit News article, Ad blitz pans fuel rules, is both quite good … and quite terrifying. The auto industry will likely have a real impact through this investment. An impact that won’t only hurt them (reduced competitiveness) through their shortsidghtedness, but all of us.

But, before turning to the auto industry, let us take a look at the reporter’s choice of words, the framing: “dramatically”, my ass! 35 is clearly achievable almost overnight with some simple changes of policy. 35 is, wow, 40% increase over 15 years. (Note: existing technology could provide that 40% within perhaps four years, if the choices were made — and that is without changing the mix of America’s car fleet in terms of classes.) Governor Richardson’s Energy Revolution proposes 50 mpg by 2020. Honestly, that is an achievable objective.

But, we really must turn our attention to the auto industry’s despicable move …

In many ways, this is both classic Astroturfing (“seeking to create the impression of spontaneous, grassroots behavior”) and incredibly blatant arrogance to try to stymie the simiplest of steps to Energize America toward a sustainable and more prosperous energy future.

Led by Detroit’s Big Three and Toyota Motor Corp., the industry is launching print and radio ads this [past] weekend warning consumers that fuel regulations under consideration by the U.S. Senate would lead to higher vehicle prices and smaller and less safe vehicles.

Memorial Day, the start of the summer driving season, was the kick off for this ad campaign. Hopefully people heard the absurdity of the message, when filling up their cars at gas prices multiples higher than just a few years ago. Does it make sense to fight for less efficient vehicles when facing $3+/gallon gasoline costs?

Well, for these automobile manufacturers, it seems so.

The ads (two of which are linked by the Detroit News along with other interesting material) target “minivan owners” {e.g., soccer moms) and “truck lovers”. Get the “soccer moms” over fears for safety (FALSE — lighter, more efficient cars can be built safer than today’s behemoths) and “truck lovers” over fears that they won’t be able the choice to buy a monstrocity in the years to come to intimidate other drivers.

The auto industry is also ponying up for DriveCongress.COM. This is calling for action, for writing members of Congress, collecting e-mail addresses for spurring people to further action to inhibit moving toward a more sensible set of standards re fuel efficiency. What are the three comment options for cutting and pasting:

I value fuel economy, but I also want many other attributes in my automobile like safety, passenger and cargo room, performance, towing, hauling capacity and more.

Note, who can argue with this to a certain extent. Every one who buys a vehicle, who rides in one needs to balance choices and options. Pure fuel efficiency drives few people (even bicyclists, for example, care about the seat comfort, ruggedness of the bike, brake quality, etc …).

Rather than setting a harmful mandates like the one being proposed, the government should encourage the use of alternative fuels like ethanol, and provide incentives for consumers, like me, to purchase alternative fuel autos.

AHHHHHHHHH… “Harmful mandate”? Harmful to who? The environment? American automobile manufacturing competitiveness? Americans’ pocketbooks? And, well, let us not emphasize ethanol — this is a VERY dangerous silver bullet that is getting too much attention and too much support.

The Senate should let the experts at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration do their job and set standards that take into account technology, safety, cost, consumer choice and effects on American jobs.

But, the NHTSA works under political guidance, right now the guidance from 1600 Pennsylvania. The Senate has a chance to speak up on that guidance. Improved CAFE standards will have a positive impact on every one of these categories. On “cost”, the standards could drive increased purchase prices but will lower cost to own through reduced fuel costs. American jobs — it is clear that America’s automobile industry is well served with CAFE standards lagging world standards since the Big Three are doing so well in car sales. (Note — is it possible that Toyota has joined with the Big Three to help them dig their graves a little deeper as Toyota moves to develop a plug-in variant of the Prius?)

Now, using their legislative contact system, what did I send:

I want to urge you to vote for the strongest possible fuel efficiency standards.

The proposed 35 mile per gallon fuel efficiency standards are barely even a start.

Governor Richardson has proposed 50 mpg by 2020. That, to me, is starting to get the nation in the right direction.

While I value many attributes in my automobile (like safety, passenger and cargo room, performance, towing, hauling capacity and more), fuel efficiency is not strongly enough emphasized in current regulation.

But, what is the automobile industry’s objective?

“Our goal is to show that extreme fuel economy increases have many negative consequences, and we need a balanced approach that avoids harm to Americans dependent on larger cars and light trucks,” alliance spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist said.

Where are they targeting with their disinformation?

Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — all states with high percentages of truck and SUV owners.

Several of the automakers are contacting retirees, dealers, and employees, arguing (falsely, I believe) that there would be serious economic reprecussions of higher fuel standards.

And, as well, GM has launched Driving Americas Future (which should be called “Driving America’s Future Into the Ground”) to fight any strengthening in the CAFE standard, arguing that “CAFE is a 1970’s solution to a 21st Century problem.” You know, they might be right. But, that “1970’s solution” probably should be part (PART) of the path toward solving 21st century (and, actually, 20th century as well) problems of oil dependency, pollution, and global warming. The CAFE standard could also, with better Detroit business acumen, help drive a stronger American auto industry.

* Green Car Congress has an excellent, complementary discussion that I noticed after writing this.


4 responses to “Astroturfing to fight mileage standards

  1. A 55mph speed limit would also improve efficiency, but that’s a non-starter, at least, it would seem to be going nowhere fast. *rim shot*

    What’s interesting is that while CAFE standards have slowly increased, performance has increased even more. My favorite victim of the CAFE standards was the 1982 Corvette, an automatic with a 200hp V8. 200hp is ante now for mid-sized cars and minivans, my wife’s Toyota minivan is a V6 with more power and likely more torque than the nerfed ’82 Corvette. The base 2007 ‘Vette gets 400hp out of the same roughly 350 cubic inches of displacement. Modern, more powerful engines still get MPG ratings that would be the envy of their 1970s and 1980s predecessors.

    I wonder if it’s easier to program an engine for performance than it is for efficiency. If it was as easy to change the computer to increase fuel efficiency as it seems to be to make it bang out the HP and torque, it would seem that manufacturers would just change the PROM, meet the standards and go on. Most likely they feel it’s worth a million for PR to avoid spending a billion on engine redesigns.

    The other issue might be that a 35mpg CAFE is harder to meet now than under the old CAFE standards. The old EPA test was bogus in any event.

  2. Darren —

    1. Your last point is correct but that does not invalidate the point that 35 mpg is still a low bar to set.

    2. Choice has been to use increased performance (which is efficiency) to increase performance (speed, acceleration, accessories, etc …) and not go as seriously into lightweighting as technology suggests is possible (see, for example). We can use “increased performance” of the engines to get higher gas mileage rather than, for example, ever larger vehicles.

    3. You are right — behaviorial changes, such as lower (enforced) speed limits, could have a quick & major impact. And, as well, very strong education about, for example, importance of inflating tires correctly would have an impact. But, this issues is about the “efficiency” rather than “usage”/”behavior” part of the liquid fuel equation.

  3. I guess my point is also that for a given displacement, there are apparently technical tricks like fuel injection and FADEC systems that can greatly increase power, but just because the engine is now X more powerful than a base engine without VVT and fuel injection does not necessarily mean that the same engine can be made a similar X more efficient. You may be able to double the horsepower and torque for a given displacement, but you may only be able to tweak another 20% out if you’re going for fuel efficiency. The fact that you can do the one doesn’t mean you can automatically do the other to the same degree.

    Carbon fiber frames and aluminum body panels will come, but it’s going to take time for those things to get cheap enough to be common. And ultimately, people have to want those things, and be willing to pay for them. The easiest solution to meet a 35 MPG CAFE standard is to just delete air conditioning, that would have a major real-world impact at all speeds, not just highway speeds — but most people wouldn’t buy a car without AC. I have AC, and I almost never use it because it means I can’t get into Bonus Time on my hybrid. I just open the windows and let the breeze do the work.

    Apparently, driving a hybrid makes you part golden retriever.

  4. Pingback: Empty barrel politics … « Energy Smart

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