Posted Apr 21st 2012 6:00PM
Earlier this month, the Association of Global Automakers launched a new website, DrivingFuelEconomy.com. It's designed to show how a fraternity of planetary automakers is, well, driving fuel economy (see what they did there? It may not be your father's Oldsmobile, but someone definitely consulted Uncle Morty's Clean One-Liners for All Occasions.)
Now if you were suspicious upon hearing this that an automakers' trade association might have ulterior motives for launching such a site - other than the simple desire to edify policymakers and elevate the level of public discourse - then you're not alone. The site definitely has some very clear policy goals, and these turn up everywhere you look on the site. Global Automakers is actually pretty straightforward about these goals, though; they say that the site exists to highlight the efforts of their own members to promote fuel economy innovations, and to make their case for why there should be one national program of fuel economy standards in the U.S.
However - and you knew there would be a "however" - the site reveals a few areas in which Global Automakers is not so forthcoming. In fact, you could say they're downright sneaky. Let's start with the least egregious example (saving the best for last):
Click to continue.
Related GalleryDriving Fuel Economy Website
Some curious gaps in the discussion.
The "global" in "Global Automakers" appears to mean "automakers that sell in the U.S. that are headquartered anywhere but in the U.S." So, no Ford, no General Motors, no Chrysler. Fair enough - companies that are not U.S.-based have their own particular lobbying needs and thus their own association. But it creates an odd tension for this site.
While it surely exists, as claimed, to promote its own members, DrivingFuelEconomy.com also purports in several places on the site to be promoting a sort of highly informed discourse about the state of fuel economy innovation, the potential of various technologies, what the next big opportunity is, etc. (And not only informed but enthusiastic: the Twitter feed showed that "#DC Car Chat is tonight! Who's excited?!" followed by "We are! See you soon! @BeCarChic." Presumably they had already coordinated their outfits via earlier tweets.)
So, on the "Advanced Technology" page we see subsection option for "Battery Electric," and under that, the poor little Nissan Leaf all by itself, no Volt or Ford Focus Electric to keep it company. That is not a vibrant discussion. It would be just an advertisement, except that it actually makes the Leaf look sillier than it otherwise would - niche, afterthought, urban golf carting.
The consumers! Won't someone please think of the consumers?
In several places on the site, Global Automakers make the claim that "customer acceptance" is the Number 1 issue influencing the advance of fuel economy innovation - which is not a crazy claim. But what is a crazy, it becomes clear, is the statement that one of the site's primary goals is to "paint a realistic picture of customer acceptance of these newly developed technologies" in the "data-heavy consumer section." First of all, let's be clear about one thing: "consumer acceptance" just means "people spending good money on it." Global Automakers sets it up as though it's some kind of qualitative rejection of the technologies themselves, but in reality it's simply a measure of whether people are buying. But okay then, let's check it out. What kind of picture are they painting with all these "heavy" data?
"Hybrids are still in the earliest phase of consumer acceptance still in the 'Innovators' category as they have a take rate of just 2.1 percent." This statement is accompanied by a little graph showing 2.1 per cent on the x-axis with "Innovators" written under it. Next, "U.S. hybrid sales peaked in 2007 and have been on a downward trend for 3 years despite many more hybrid models being made available to consumers." Another little graph, showing the trend line of hybrid sales between 1999 and 2011, with the peak indeed occurring in 2007 - a shocker for anyone who was shot into space four years ago and missed it when a global recession started in 2008.
And next they - wait, what? That's it? That's the whole "realistic picture" painted of this incredibly important "key piece of the puzzle and also the wild card" (ouch, metaphor clash) - two claims that are sort-of supported by data except not attributed to any source and are otherwise wholly decontextualized? Realistically, any such "data heavy" discussion ought to include, at a minimum:
+ The recession + Falling gas prices + The Tohuku earthquake, which disrupted Honda and Toyota's delivery of hybrids for months + The spike in hybrid purchases between November 2011 and February 2012 + Some explanation of why they say they're explaining consumer acceptance of fuel-efficient technologies and then use data only for hybrids.
If we can't make California fall into the ocean, can we at least...
Through DrivingFuelEconomy.com, the Association of Global Automakers repeatedly state (i.e. on every page in the site) that it wants "one national program" instead of "a patchwork of differing federal and state fuel economy standards that provide no significant environmental benefit." Well, yes, Global Automakers, we can all agree we don't want policies that provide no benefit. Which policies are these that you've discovered provide no benefit? You have evidence, presumably? Some attributable data, perhaps? Turns out, correlative evidence is not Global Automakers' strong suit.
Let's move on. Let's hear more about this "one national program." As Global Automakers describes it, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation have already streamlined standards and will be implementing a program pretty much exactly like what Global Automakers wants. So what is the problem? What is Global Automakers still on about?
Ah ha: "Compliance with the national program would be deemed compliance with the California program." Way to bury the lead, Global Automakers! You sly foxes! You're going for federal statutory preemption, and you never let on!
In other words, when Global Automakers say over and over that it wants "one national program," it's not just expressing the completely reasonable position that standards should be streamlined, or everyone should be on the same page, or anything like that. What it wants is for the federal regulations to include a provision that no state or local jurisdiction may create standards that are more rigorous than what the Feds come up with. If Global Automakers wasn't being so effectively surreptitious about it, they could probably call it the "Bite Me, California" provision.
Obviously, no one will find it shocking that a trade association's website is promoting policy positions favorable to its members. But DrivingFuelEconomy.com may have to choose. Does it want to be considered a source of trustworthy information and discussion about fuel economy technologies? If so, it's going to have to boost the rigor and comprehensiveness of their data several notches, and maybe inch up the transparency scale as well.
Otherwise, it should drop those exalted claims, and just embrace what it is: one big advertisement for special interest.