Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Pickup Drivers and Fuel Economy Standards

James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker that the arguments against increasing fuel mileage standards has a familiar ring:
In the nineteen-twenties, Alfred Sloan, the president of General Motors, insisted that the company could not make windshields with safety glass because doing so would harm the bottom line. In the fifties, auto executives told Congress that making seat belts compulsory would slash industry profits. When air bags came along, Lee Iacocca told Richard Nixon that “safety has really killed all our business.” A few years later, when Congress was thinking about requiring fuel-economy standards, auto executives warned that instituting such standards would create “massive financial and unemployment problems.” And now, with Congress debating a bill to raise fuel-economy standards, for the first time in almost twenty years, the Chicken Littles are squawking again, forecasting doom for Detroit and asserting that making higher-mileage vehicles is technologically unfeasible and economically suicidal.
USA Today ran a story on Monday noting that Toyota has passed GM as the world's leading automaker, in part because of sales of the Prius and other hybrids:
TOKYO (AP) — Toyota reaffirmed on Monday its global sales target of 9.34 million vehicles for this year despite worries about plant closures and a sluggish market in Japan. Toyota Motor, which outpaced General Motors in global vehicle sales in the first half of the year for the first time ever, set the full-year target late last year.
Toyota said in June sales of its hybrid cars had passed 1 million vehicles, a landmark for the automaker that started selling the Prius a decade ago and now dominates the hybrid market.
One of the arguments against increasing fuel mileage standards is that drivers have already decided that they like the big vehicles just fine and don’t want liberal do-gooders dragging them out of their SUVs and forcing them into small, inconvenient, unsafe sub-compacts. But as Surowiecki points out, people distinguish between personal choices and public policy choices:
Americans may want to buy the biggest and most environmentally damaging vehicles available, but polls show that, given an option, some three-quarters of them vote for dramatic increases in fuel-economy standards—increases that may well force automakers to sell fewer (or at least smaller) S.U.V.s. We buy gas guzzlers but vote for gas sipping. This isn’t because people are ignorant about how higher fuel-economy standards would affect them personally; polls that explicitly lay out the potential trade-offs involved still find support for tougher standards. And it isn’t as if voters and car buyers belong to two
different groups; one recent survey of pickup owners found that seventy per cent strongly favored tougher requirements.
Why the difference between personal choices and policy preferences?
And the market doesn’t create counter-incentives that would push us in a responsible direction, since someone who drives a Hummer doesn’t suffer the effects of pollution and global warming any more than someone driving a Prius does, and isn’t charged more for the extra environmental damage.
Even people who drive pickups, and don’t spend time pondering the economics of public policy choices, understand that some problems can’t be left to the market.


Blogger a most peculiar nature said...

Somewhat related ….

We watched an excellent documentary on PBS last night: “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (2006)

It is worth watching, just to see the sleazy lengths that auto manufacturers go to and the hijinks of the politicians who are beholden to them. The passion of the activists in the movie is also inspiring.

Synopsis: “With gasoline prices approaching $4/gallon, fossil fuel shortages, unrest in oil producing regions around the globe and mainstream consumer adoption and adoption of the hybrid electric car (more than 140,000 Prius' sold this year), this story couldn't be more relevant or important. The foremost goal in making this movie is to educate and enlighten audiences with the story of this car, its place in history and in the larger story of our car culture and how it enables our continuing addiction to foreign oil. This is an important film with an important message that not only calls to task the officials who squelched the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate, but all of the other accomplices, government, the car companies, Big Oil, even Eco-darling Hydrogen as well as consumers, who turned their backs on the car and embrace embracing instead the SUV. Our documentary investigates the death and resurrection of the electric car, as well as the role of renewable energy and sustainable living in our country's future; issues which affect everyone from progressive liberals to the neo-conservative right.”


8:49 AM, July 26, 2007  
Blogger Tom Noyes said...

Thanks for the link, Shirley. I've been aware of the movie, but have not seen it. I'll have to see if my friendly local video store has it.

12:25 PM, July 26, 2007  

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