Why (Some) Automakers Are Working with the Trump Administration to Undermine the Clean Air Act

December 2, 2019 | 1:58 pm
Green Subaru Forester at 2019 LA Auto ShowUCS/Dave Reichmuth
Dave Cooke
Senior Vehicles Analyst

The Los Angeles Auto Show is just wrapping up, but while my colleague Dave Reichmuth was there getting a sneak peek at what the next couple years have in store, California’s emissions regulators were absent for the first time in 50 years. The reason? It is all too apparent that automakers are engaging in a classic case of greenwashing, using the event to tout a handful of “green” vehicles as environmentally friendly while actively working behind the scenes to undermine environmental protections.

Here’s the skinny on what the industry is doing, and why California and other states pushing to protect their citizens are seriously pissed off at a cabal of automakers currently in cahoots with the Trump administration.

Let’s be clear: All major automakers are pushing for weaker standards

First off, I think it’s important to recognize that while the industry is divided in their approach to vehicle emissions regulations (more on that in a bit), they are unanimous on one point: every single automaker not named Tesla wants the current standards to be weakened.

Less than a month after President Trump’s inauguration, 18 automaker CEOs urged the administration to undo the single set of strong standards finalized by the previous administration. The letter used the standard industry tactic, exaggerating the potential economic impacts of the standards, and claimed that market realities suggested the program needed to be weakened, even though (as noted in our most recent modeling) the standards remain achievable and would save consumers money.

This letter opened up a Pandora’s box of uncertainty for the industry—but that was a calculated decision made virtually unanimously by automakers. And they got exactly what they asked for, in turn—an administration proposal to roll back the current standards. The (entirely foreseeable) problem for the industry is that California (and the states that follow California) already completed their own review of the current regulations upholding those current standards as appropriate, meaning the administration’s action created two separate standards for the industry to follow and a whole lot of uncertainty thanks to its legal attacks on state authority.

This context is key—more than two years later, this lingering cloud of uncertainty (of the industry’s own making) has finally pushed automakers to make some significant decisions.

Companies like Toyota highlighted the future while keeping their present actions in the shadows, trying to maintain environmental credibility when their behavior clearly shows otherwise.

For some automakers, certainty is key

With around 17 million new passenger vehicles sold each year in the United States, every model year represents over half a trillion dollars in revenue for the industry, money which the industry then uses, in part, to build up and plan future long-term investments in facilities and R&D based on their vision for the future. Uncertainty about that future not only affects a company’s current outlook but has serious ramifications for its ability to respond to future developments.

In an effort to end this uncertainty, BMW, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen forged a deal with California about future emissions standards—the state would not force the companies to keep two sets of books, but would instead allow for some additional flexibility provided the companies better aligned their sales with California’s transition to a cleaner, electric transportation future.

In return for greater certainty, the companies explicitly acknowledged California’s legal authority to set strong standards under both its Low- and Zero-Emission Vehicle programs.

It is also worth noting that this deal was precisely the deal presented by California to the Trump administration when asked for a “compromise.” Not only was this deal rejected by the Trump administration, but it was rejected by the rest of the auto industry as well.

For others, pollution trumps certainty

One month ago, most of the rest of the industry banded together in the worst ensemble feature since Justice League, creating the poorly named Coalition for Sustainable Automotive Regulation (CSAR). CSAR is led by Fiat-Chrysler (comprising Jeep, Dodge, Ram, et al.), General Motors, and Toyota but also includes Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Nissan, and Subaru, as well as the National Association of Automotive Dealers.

In the group’s own words, “the Coalition seeks a national regulatory program that includes feasible increases in fuel economy, along with holistic market-based approaches that facilitate the continued transition of motor vehicle transportation propulsion’s use of efficient advanced technologies, including electrification.” However, this is transparent nonsense. Why do we know this? Because that is precisely what the automakers NOT part of this coalition already have in the deal with California!

The group’s purpose was not to support sensible long-term standards—it is simply to support the Trump administration’s position preventing California from protecting its citizens under the Clean Air Act.

This is especially apparent when we consider the public positions of these automakers. For example, General Motors proposed an incredibly weak national standard that would require less improvement to conventional vehicles than manufacturers made even in the absence of standards, while resulting in lower electric vehicle deployment than the trajectory we’re already on (talk about a do-nothing approach to climate policy!). Toyota, on the other hand, has tried for over a decade to rewrite the CAFE program in its favor, including pushing for piles of “extra credit” for its hybrids that won’t result in real world reductions, claiming that these 20-year-old technologies are “advanced.” And, of course, Chrysler has long had the least efficient fleet of any major automaker, and pushing for the weakest regulations possible is just part of the auto industry’s DNA.

While certainty may be a consideration for the automakers siding with the Trump administration, the central focus driving this ad hoc coalition isn’t whether or not the automakers have clear regulations around which to plan for the future, but whether those regulations are as weak as they can possibly be.

California regulations are responsible for the development and production of the Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivan, but Fiat-Chrysler is doing its best to scrap the rules that pushed for consumers to have even that one available option.

Notably, customers are pretty upset

The fallout from this automaker action has been swift. California has committed to not buying any more vehicles for their government fleet from the automakers attacking the state’s regulations. Toyota went on damage control immediately, crafting this incredibly stupid video reiterating the false claim that this has nothing to do with crafting weaker standards. And news sites ranging from The New York Times to Jalopnik worked to capture the raw emotion of seething customers like my colleague Jonna Hamilton, who felt frustrated that a company who built its reputation around being green (thanks to the Prius) was working behind the scenes to attack environmental progress.

The most frustrating aspect of this is that industry has had multiple opportunities to correct its mistakes. This is precisely why we wrote Time for a U-turn—under the Obama administration, it seemed for a brief moment that the auto industry had recognized the perils of climate change and were committing to supporting smart policies to address it. As soon as President Trump was elected, though, the industry reverted and pushed for “regulatory reform”, a synonym for “letting us do whatever we want.”

After seeing the calamity created, a small band of automakers took a mulligan and at least tried to rectify, in part, the havoc created. But the rest of the industry just doubled down on a bad idea.

Toyota, GM, and others are moving full speed ahead in the wrong direction

With an opportunity to change course on the table, Toyota, GM, Fiat-Chrysler, and others instead put the pedal to the metal and accelerated their way down the wrong road. And it’s important not to let them get away with it.

California regulators made clear they weren’t going to take any more of the industry’s greenwashing—they shouldn’t be alone. Distraction is at the core of many forms of deception, as any magician knows. The key to breaking the spell is to focus on what they don’t want you to know. And for Toyota, GM, Fiat-Chrysler, and everyone else, that is this: They’d rather cash in on yesterday’s technology than innovate and take responsibility for the pollution from their products.

Toyota didn’t sell the Prius to change the world—they sold the Prius because they could make money off it, and they used it as a green halo around which to bolster the rest of their brand. Subaru is selling you on how all-wheel-drive can deal with the adverse impacts from climate change, while ignoring their contribution to it. GM tried to use its Volt and its Bolt electric vehicles as evidence that they’re big-brained engineers trying to save the planet, but they stopped production of the former and aren’t advertising the latter and are probably hoping you just completely ignore the fact that they killed the electric car in the first place.

The companies sold these vehicles and developed these technologies because California pushed them to. The ability for California to set standards has led to countless auto industry innovations coming to market from catalytic converters, to hybrids, and EVs. And now the very companies that could and should be investing in the technologies needed for a more sustainable transportation future are expending time and energy fighting against environmental protections so they don’t have to.

Don’t let these companies off the hook any longer.

If you want to speak your mind, sign this petition—it’s time to tell these auto manufacturers to stop putting short-term gains ahead of the public and the climate in their support of the Trump administration’s attack on clean car standards.

Urge automakers to reverse course and support California’s right to set and other states’ right to adopt strong vehicle emission standards.