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Traditional Automakers Shoot Their Future in the Foot by Attacking CAFE Standards

“Rolling back strong national fuel economy and emissions standards will undermine the global competitiveness of the U.S. auto industry. In the absence of federal leadership, states need to continue to lead on clean car standards.” — New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

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Notable news on the climate and clean energy fronts over the past couple of days. On one side, we have Tesla surging ahead with clean energy vehicle production (more later). Meanwhile, a legacy industry clinging to old, dirty, climate wrecking, fossil fuel driven combustion engines and a perception that such machines mean easy profits, is actively fighting to undermine its own future.

(Polluted skies, more respiratory illness, higher energy costs, less energy independence, ramping climate destruction, the loss of auto industry leadership. Reduce CAFE standards and that’s what you end up with.)

A Crooked Old Business Philosophy

The mainstream U.S. auto industry represented by legacy fossil fuel vehicle manufacturers continued in their decades-long campaign to roll back vehicle fuel efficiency standards (CAFE) this week. The campaign, which was born at about the same time the Environmental Protection Agency first attempted to cut back harmful vehicle based air pollution and related high fuel consumption at the same time, is a creature of purest short-sighted profit motive gone wrong.

Auto industry executives myopically looking at quarterly reports and not at the need for more desirable vehicles in the form of less polluting and non-polluting, more efficient cars have long seen these government standards not as enablers of innovation, but as an onerous constraint. In the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, automakers achieved numerous legislative and executive victories that allowed them to produce slightly modified versions of the same vehicle designs exhibiting only slow, marginal improvements. But these improvements, when achieved, were often used to increase vehicle size and acceleration — not to improve overall efficiency.

A Stated Commitment to Advance Clean Energy

(Increasing fuel economy standards produce massive benefits to the United States. Families save money on fuel, carbon dioxide pollution is greatly reduced, the U.S. becomes more energy independent, and the harmful impacts of climate change are blunted. What is not communicated in the above graphic, however, is the fact that fuel efficiency standards spur American business leadership by encouraging continuous innovation in the form of more attractive, cleaner, more advanced products. Image source: Obama Whitehouse Archives.)

This trend changed with the oil shocks of the middle 2000s and the related establishment of new, more aggressive fuel efficiency standards during the Obama Administration. These stronger CAFE standards followed a massive public bailout of the U.S. auto industry after the Great Recession. A bailout that was predicated on the notion that automakers would improve. That they would innovate in order to become competitive. That they would be more forward-looking.

Promises along these lines were made by auto industry leaders at the time. The Obama Administration subsequently joined with clean energy promoters across the country like California in establishing an aggressive plan to reduce harmful carbon and particulate emissions by rapidly increasing vehicle fuel efficiency. In 2010, these new standards were set. The ultimate goal was to achieve an average fleet fuel efficiency of around 55 miles per gallon by the middle 2020s.

(Obama Administration fuel efficiency increases and targets. Image source: Obama Whitehouse Archives.)

Implied in this goal was a great deal of U.S. auto industry innovation and leadership. Such strong goals would enable automakers to produce world-leading vehicles by pushing them to rapidly improve their designs. In other words, they would develop vehicles that were outside of traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) based platforms. Since electrical vehicles were the lowest cost, easiest to mass produce, and easiest to support non-ICE technology, the 55 mpg standard implied that U.S. automakers would ultimately become electrical vehicle leaders. A new market would be produced. And because of responsible public policy, the U.S. auto industry would have a critical competitive advantage on a global level.

Backsliding and Backwards Thinking

But the old industry didn’t want to innovate. And it often resisted the production of electrical vehicles which were so foreign to its business models and more conservative, traditionally lazy way of thinking. For years, they resisted the increase in CAFE standards by every means imaginable. Instead of asking the government for added incentive and reward for progress achieved, the industry returned to its old tradition of flogging progress through lobbying. Mileage standards were watered down — reduced to 51 mpg by 2025. But the ultimate goal appeared to be to plateau fuel efficiency averages near 36 miles per gallon. A number of mainstream electrical vehicles were produced by these automakers. But many either appeared as token efforts or as reactionary responses to real EV innovators like Tesla.

By the time a backward-looking, corrupt, and autocratic Trump Administration wrested executive political power from the hands of the majority of the American people, these old industry players were ready for a change back to harmful business as usual. So through their ties and lobbying groups, they again pushed for reduced mileage standards.

As of yesterday, Trump’s EPA, hollowed out and corrupted by fossil fuel cheer leader Scott Pruitt, was aiming to roll back Obama’s clean vehicle standards and the potential for broader U.S. clean energy leadership along with it. In other words, a great leap backward — but one that will put Trump’s dirty-fuel-promoting executive branch directly in conflict with both EPA’s stated and lawful mission as well as make foes of state clean energy leaders spear-headed by California. From this against-the-future decision-making a battle will almost certainly ensue. One which will ultimately be fought in the courts.

Shooting Themselves in the Foot

If big auto wins this most recent push to pollute, will it really be winning? To be clear, none of the rest of us will. We’ll be treated to worse climate change and worse health-harming pollution combined. Higher gas prices, higher cost of living, less efficiency and ease in our daily lives. And much more risk and danger.

But what does big auto get out of it? Public ire? Less advanced vehicles that are less competitive in a world that is rapidly moving toward electrification? Lower competitiveness with emerging industries in China? And the inability to compete with the likes of Tesla at home? Taking these variables into account, the auto industry’s push to reduce CAFE standards looks a lot like a pathway to another set of bankruptcies five to ten years down the road. Are a few quarters of extra profits really worth all that?

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