President Donald Trump is angry with automakers, including Ford, that have signed onto a deal with California for fuel-economy standards that are tougher than what the administration wants.
”Henry Ford would be very disappointed if he saw his modern-day descendants wanting to build a much more expensive car, that is far less safe and doesn’t work as well, because execs don’t want to fight California regulators,” Trump tweeted this week. “Car companies should know that when this Administration’s alternative is no longer available, California will squeeze them to a point of business ruin.”
What’s at stake
Trump wants to roll back an Obama administration rule that required carmakers to achieve a fleet average of 54 miles per gallon (on paper) by 2025. “On paper” is an important qualifier. Consumer Reports estimates that the 54 mpg from lab testing and after various credits are applied would be closer to 36 mpg in real-world driving.
Trump would freeze the standard at 2021’s 37 mpg paper requirement, which would be closer to 29 mpg on the road.
The fuel-economy standards have multiple purposes in U.S. policy:
• Saving consumers money
• Reducing U.S. reliance on foreign oil
• Reducing air pollution.
The latter is why California has been able to set its own standards under an exemption it has to the Clean Air Act. Trump is seeking to rescind that exemption, which is tied up in the courts. Transportation, generally the automobile, is the United States’ biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, which affect climate change.
A short history of gas mileage
• As Henry Ford sought to bring auto travel to the masses, he and others studied how to power cars, and Ford worked with Thomas Edison on a long-promised electric car. Ultimately, the Model T was gasoline powered, and reportedly got about 21 mpg.
• Gas, though, was cheap for decades in the United States, and fuel economy wasn’t much on the minds of automakers and consumers. Style and performance were important, and bigger cars cut fuel economy. In 1935, according to the Christian Science Monitor, cars on American roads got about 14 mpg.
• One of the first public discussions of gas mileage came from George Romney, a Republican who might have been the target of a Trump tweet for his fuel economy blasphemy. The father of Mitt Romney, George Romney was head of American Motors Corp. from 1954 until being elected Michigan governor in 1962, championed small cars, including the company’s Rambler. He coined the term “gas guzzling dinosaurs” referring to his competitors’ ever-bigger cars.
• By the 1960s, some cars topped 20 mpg, including the Volkswagen Beetle, the Rambler and the Toyota Corona.
• The Arab oil embargo of 1973 provided the first gas-price shock in the United States, leading Congress to pass the nation’s first CAFE standards in 1975. California, under the Clean Air Act of 1970, had an exemption to set its own standards beyond those of the federal government. Thirteen other states followed California’s lead.
• The 2000 Toyota Prius hybrid boasted 50 mpg. Today’s Prius gets about 56 mpg combined (a little better in city driving), while the best-selling vehicle in the United States, the Ford F-150 pickup, gets about 30 mpg on the highway.
• President Barack Obama, seeking to save consumers money and fight climate change, set tough fuel economy standards, including the 2025 goal that Trump wants to freeze. Automakers want one national standard and argue that consumer preference shifting toward SUVs and pickups, plus increased U.S. oil production, means they should have more flexibility.
• The Trump administration’s freeze at 2021 levels was more than carmakers wanted, and they feared a long court fight with California that would make their product planning difficult.
• Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW have voluntarily joined a California plan to reach an average of about 50 mpg by 2026, prompting Trump’s ire.
Also, it’s more complicated than this. Different automakers have different interests. Fiat Chrysler, heavy on trucks, SUVs and muscle cars, advocates for “flexibility.” General Motors wants a national electric vehicle program and hasn’t joined the California deal.