Ford Touts 'Green' Image While Arguing for Weaker Efficiency Standards and Planning to Sell Only Trucks

Mustang tailpipe

Ford Motor Company would really like the public to believe that it supports strong emissions and efficiency standards for personal vehicles. Just ask Board Chair Bill Ford and President and CEO Jim Hackett, who recently wrote: “We support increasing clean car standards through 2025 and are not asking for a rollback.”

However, a “rollback” is exactly what EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, in his own language, has promised, and his planned rewrite of auto emissions standards has been guided almost exclusively by the input of Ford and other automakers through the powerful Alliance of Auto Manufacturers (the Auto Alliance).

In arguing against the preservation of the Obama administration’s standards — which, once again, the car companies helped write and all agreed to — the Auto Alliance and its members resorted to strong skepticism of basic climate and air pollution science. The industry has also cherry-picked data from self-funded studies, including at least one study car companies paid for that plainly disproves their public claims that increased fuel efficiency standards will cost jobs.

Pruitt’s EPA took the industry at its word, and is now promising the very “rollback” that Ford and other automakers, through the Auto Alliance, are saying they don’t want.

Don’t Call it a Rollback: Cars vs. Trucks and More Flexible Standards

Some of the hypocrisy is just semantic. Mitch Bainwol of the Auto Alliance says that “revisiting of fuel standards is not a rollback.” The standards aren’t official yet, argues Bainwol, because Obama’s agencies didn’t conduct an appropriate midterm review. This may surprise the dozens of staffers at the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) who spent four years producing what Dave Cooke at the Union of Concerned Scientists called “a mountain of independent, peer-reviewed data.”

Bainwol makes the case for “flexibility” in achieving the standards, arguing that companies shouldn’t be punished for consumers who want to buy less efficient cars and trucks.

“The market reality is clear. No factor is more relevant than gas prices, which remain significantly lower than projected. In reaction, consumers are buying more SUVs and trucks, bigger engines and fewer alternative powertrains than regulators expected …

Remember, the government evaluates automakers on fuel economy standards by what consumers buy — not what automakers put in dealer showrooms. In short, the buying pattern of the American public has demonstrated that a rigid adherence to the standards — as originally contemplated nearly a decade ago — is inconsistent with market realities.”

This has become a common refrain from the automakers: government shouldn’t tell people what cars to buy. It’s also entirely deceptive.

Ford could sell nothing but F150s if they wanted to and still achieve the standard,” Cooke of the Union of Concerned Scientists told DeSmog. “It was very clear in how the efficiency rules were defined,” Cooke said. “Whatever mix of vehicles you sell have to be more efficient.”

Since the George W. Bush administration, cars and trucks are treated differently for emissions and fuel economy standards. Trucks have lower targets to hit, and a car company’s ultimate compliance with federal standards is determined by the ratio of cars-to-trucks it actually sells. That’s why Ford (or any other automaker) could in theory sell as few as zero cars and still comply. The federal government, in other words, is not telling Americans they have to drive little sedans and hatchbacks.

For its part, Ford also claims it’s asking for “flexibility,” not a rollback. Ford and Hackett write:

“We want one set of standards nationally, along with additional flexibility to help us provide more affordable options for our customers. We believe that working together with EPA, NHTSA, and California, we can deliver on this standard.”

Their argument for affordability is dubious, given the company’s recent announcement that Ford will stop selling all but one model of car (the Mustang) by 2020, replacing virtually its entire sedan fleet with trucks, crossovers, and SUVs that come at much higher price points.

The news even stunned many Ford dealers, who worry that sales of cheaper, entry-level cars are critical to their businesses. The company responded by promising that there will be some more affordable models of crossovers and SUVs. However, as Detroit News reported, Ford’s CEO is pushing “for 90 percent of the vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2020 to be profit-rich trucks, SUVs, or commercial vehicles.”

Though Ford claims to be ditching the car for financial reasons, the decision could also make it easier for the company to comply with emissions and efficiency standards, whatever they wind up being.

As described above, vehicles classified as trucks have a lower bar to clear for EPA and NHTSA standards. Under current rules, a fleet of only cars produced this year would have to get around 34 miles per gallon (MPGs), whereas a fleet of only trucks and SUVs could average about 25 MPGs.

It gets confusing in the gray space between what the average American knows to be cars and trucks. There are a number of muddying factors (approach angle, footprint, weight, and so on), but generally speaking, crossovers are categorized as light trucks if they are equipped with all wheel drive (AWD). Though the average American might think of a crossover hatchback (like a Subaru Outback or Nissan Rogue) as a station wagon, if a crossover is all wheel drive, it’s technically a light truck. This actually creates a perverse incentive for manufacturers to sell more AWD versions of the same model, making it easier to comply with standards.

Ultimately, by scrapping Fusions, Tauruses, and Fiestas and replacing them with yet-to-be-announced crossovers, Ford can potentially lower its overall emissions and efficiency targets.

Of course, no one yet knows if Ford would actually try to game the system like that, let alone if the company is actively lobbying for this “flexibility” to allow for even more crossovers to be categorized as light trucks. But the bottom line is that Ford is asking for a loosening of efficiency standards that are achievable, and by bailing on its car business and focusing on crossovers, SUVs, and pickups, Ford will be selling more cars that burn more gasoline and emit more carbon dioxide.

Main image: Mustang cold engine startup. Credit: Mike RobertsCC BY-SA 2.0

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