Five Deceptive Tactics Automakers Are Using to Fight Fuel Economy Standards

July 13, 2016 | 1:23 pm
Photo: Wikipedia
Dave Cooke
Senior Vehicles Analyst

As our federal passenger vehicle efficiency standards come under review, it’s no surprise, sadly, to see a spirited opposition campaign from the nation’s automakers—and one so laden with misinformation.

A couple weeks ago, the Automotive Alliance (a trade group representing a number of automakers, including Toyota, Ford, General Motors, Fiat-Chrysler, BMW, Mercedes, and Volkswagen) released a fact sheet detailing a number of (often bogus) complaints about the fuel economy and global warming emissions regulations of light-duty vehicles that they would like to see remedied in the mid-term review.

Some of these errors have already been addressed in a great blog by automotive consultants Alan Baum and Dan Luria, but I wanted to dig a little deeper into a few more to illustrate some common misinformation tactics in the long history of industry-sponsored deception.

Tactic #1:  Cherry-pick the data

Maybe the most common method for deception is simply cherry-picking data. While sometimes this can represent a partial truth, more often it means that the cherry-picker is omitting the greater truth present in a report, one that does not tell the narrative they wish to be true.

In this fact sheet, this is most commonly done with regards to a study by the National Academies of Sciences’ National Research Council (NRC), which is quoted often in the Alliance’s fact sheet but does not support their more general argument. As I wrote when the study was released, the findings in the NRC report are largely supportive of the federal agencies’ original assessments of the program’s costs and the technologies that would be needed to meet the standards—findings which directly contradict statements made in the Alliance fact sheet.

In fact, one of the most notable findings in the NRC report was that there were a number of technologies on the market today that weren’t originally included by the EPA and NHTSA, technologies like high-compression engines and 48V stop-start which make it easier for manufacturers to meet future standards.

Tactic #2:  Buy the results you want

One key section of the fact sheet, and one that is extremely relevant to the Technical Assessment Report expected to be released by the agencies this week, relates to analysis of the technologies to be applied in 2025. This analysis, bought and paid for by automakers, has a number of fundamental mistakes that ensure that the study comes out the way the automakers envisioned:

  • The study assumes that over an 11 year span from 2014 to 2025, the average vehicle will not improve upon what is already available today. This is said with a straight face, despite noting at other points in the fact sheet “the industry’s innovations” and how “manufacturers have accelerated the development of new technology.”
  • The study largely ignores opportunities for reducing fuel usage beyond the engine, with lightweight materials being a particular oversight since the technology is already being deployed with levels of improvement exceeding those assumed by the study.
  • Among its seemingly arbitrary constraints, the study assumes that conventional vehicles will never match the levels of efficiency of today’s diesel or hybrid-electric powertrains. Engineers have already previously broken this “constraint,” with the Southwest Research Institute’s HEDGE project matching diesel equivalency and Toyota’s ESTEC platform matching the same level of efficiency as its Prius—there’s no reason to accept such a limit at face value.
  • Another arbitrary constraint relates to how efficient an engine can be on-average versus at its most efficient. This criterion is easily broken by technologies like cylinder deactivation and the use of the Atkinson cycle in conventional vehicles, technologies which are aimed exactly at improving average efficiency and not peak efficiency. Needless to say, these technologies are already being deployed today but were excluded from the analysis.
  • Finally, in a show of just how arbitrary the constraints imposed by the study were, a number of vehicles already on the road today would be considered “implausible” according to their metrics, including the Honda Fit. When the study can’t even properly capture the vehicles of today, how can it possibly be trusted to assess the vehicles of tomorrow?

Paying for bogus studies is nothing new, of course—not only has it been used by automakers in the past, but it’s something many people are familiar with thanks to oil companies funding climate denialists and the tobacco industry using the same tactics.

Tactic #3:  Spin, spin, spin

Sometimes the data doesn’t quite say what industry might want it to, so it gets spun. In this fact sheet, one of the most obvious examples is that the “real world, holistic modeling” of the study mentioned in #2 is, in fact, neither—it excludes credits, off-cycle technologies, and any analysis of road-load technologies like low-rolling-resistance tires and lightweighting.

An alternative approach to spin is more like sleight of hand—you answer a question that was not asked in a form of bait-and-switch and pretend that it is relevant to the conversation.  One example in this fact sheet is the claim around increasing truck sales resulting from an improving economy. For one thing, the cited number does not distinguish between light-duty pick-ups and commercial pick-ups, the latter of which you’d obviously expect to increase in sales when the economy picks up.

For another…so what? As we’ve noted innumerable times, these standards take into consideration the size and type of the vehicle being sold—selling more pick-ups doesn’t at all make it more difficult to achieve the standards.

Tactic #4:  Say what you want and hope no one fact-checks it

Of course, the easiest way to deception is simply to lie. To be fair to the Alliance, their mistruths were generally more subtle, but there are still quite a few very questionable assertions.  For example, they claim that “gasoline prices are near historic averages when adjusted for inflation,” but the very data cited shows that, in fact, gas prices today are 10 percent below the inflation-adjusted average.

Conversely, in the discussion of rising car prices, inflation is completely ignored, despite being the primary reason for increasing price, with less than a third of the increase related to safety features, entertainment systems, and all the other things automakers blame for rising prices.

Another example is the claim that California will be coming to some final conclusion on the mid-term review ahead of federal regulators, but again the website cited does not support such a claim. California regulators will update the Air Resources Board at the end of the year on the mid-term review, and they’re even holding a symposium in the fall focused on technologies to reduce fuel usage.

Separately, California continues to monitor progress on achieving the state’s 2030 climate targets, of which light-duty vehicle efficiency will certainly be a key contributor, but this is not a regulatory process. California currently accepts compliance with federal regulation as compliance with their own tailpipe standards and continues to be a partner in the mid-term review—claiming otherwise simply does not jibe with the facts on the ground.

Tactic #5:  Let someone else do the dirty work

Ultimately, this is the real problem at hand—the Automotive Alliance represents a number of automakers, but the folks at General Motors, Toyota, et al. really don’t have to individually answer for the deceptive tactics that their front group takes. By maintaining a separation between individual automaker statements and the “party line” that the Alliance creates, it gives cover to the automakers, allowing them to say they are acting in good faith. For example, the CEO of Ford noted (as we, too, believe) that “We want [the review] to be very fact based”, but just a few months later this highly deceptive fact sheet targeting the mid-term review was released by the group that ostensibly represents the company.

Automakers have a responsibility to continue to work in good faith with regulators throughout this mid-term review process, a process which they themselves requested. We hope that they’ll distance themselves from the type of rhetoric that comes out of groups like the Alliance and focus instead on funding the continued technological progress that has enabled automakers to exceed the fuel economy and emissions targets already on the books. Innovation would be a more profitable and sustainable tactic for the automakers and American public than obfuscation and misinformation.

Edit 7/18/16: An earlier version of this blog erroneously noted that the Alliance study would have considered the Toyota Tacoma “implausible” due to a calculation error made by the author.