In April, the whole industry jammed the machine into reverse. The president of the Auto Alliance told Congress that he didn’t want the standards to freeze, even though he had once said the EPA should “withdraw” the rules. And carmakers wrote a new letter to the White House, which beseeched the president from the other direction: “Climate change is real, and we have a continuing role in reducing greenhouse gases and improving fuel efficiency.”
“It’s sort of a case where the dog actually caught the bus,” Jack Gillis, a researcher at the Consumer Federation of America, told me at the time. “Now what are they going to do?”
They’re going to diplomatically equivocate, apparently. Asked to comment on this week’s proposal, a Ford spokesman referred me to the Auto Alliance statement. General Motors gave a similarly milquetoast comment to The Detroit News. The Alliance did not respond to a further request for comment regarding some of the claims in this article.
And despite their statements, it’s not clear that carmakers actually dislike the new proposal. Even if automakers care about climate change, the proposed rules will probably save them a lot of money.
Sam Ori, the executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, believes that car companies are bluffing. “The bottom line is just that industry wants the lowest costs possible,” he told me in June. “They’re concerned about the public-image aspect of this. They’re concerned that everyone’s going to see they’re self-interested, that their image as environmental stewards will be tarnished.”
But automakers do have financial reasons to fear controversy over the standards. Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has allowed California to issue stricter tailpipe-emissions rules than the EPA. California has technically used this law to enforce its own fuel-economy rules since 2012—but its requirements are identical to the federal government’s, creating one de facto national rule.
In the proposal, the Trump administration weakens the federal standards while revoking California’s power to issue stricter rules. The state has sued in response. If the Supreme Court rules that California can enforce its own fuel-economy rules, then the U.S. car market would permanently split in two, and automakers would likely have to manufacture lighter, more advanced vehicles for California.
Even if California loses, automakers could float for years in legal uncertainty, as they fight a complicated and unflattering court battle with the country’s most populous state. Since carmakers plan their product lines years ahead of time, even a relatively quick duel could upset their business plans deep into the 2020s.
Do automakers fear this uncertainty more than they fear the unchanged standards?
It may be too late for them to answer that question: They already chose their ally when they met with Pruitt, when they sent pleading letters to the president, and when they cited junk science in official documents. And if you look closely, there’s a rising awareness of this in the new Auto Alliance statement:
We urge California and the federal government to find a common-sense solution that sets continued increases in vehicle-efficiency standards while also meeting the needs of America’s drivers.
The emphasis isn’t mine: Common sense was also emphasized in the original statement. It’s the emphasis of the earnest exhortative: Come on, guys, we can work it out. In an administration keen to avoid costly controversies for its allies in business, such arguments might win out. But the automakers chose to lash themselves to the Trump administration, which has rarely let bad press stand in the way of a good culture war. Now auto executives are being taught what Trump-friendly NFL owners learned last year. It turns out that old song—the one you can still hear blasting from Mustang convertibles in any American suburb—didn’t tell the whole truth. Sometimes, you can get too much of what you want.