Carmakers want emission, CAFE tweaks, not huge rollbacks, but won't say so publicly

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As promised, the Trump administration has embarked on regulatory rollbacks across many fronts, some immediate and others taking longer.

It remains unclear whether the EPA’s plan to loosen carbon-dioxide emission limits for 2022 through 2025 vehicles will survive inevitable court challenges.

However, despite shrill rhetoric from environmental groups, automakers in general—especially the Detroit Three—don’t want those standards tossed out the window.

They might like to see them delayed, and some minor technical details adjusted to provide more credit for specific technologies.

But they do not want, nor have they lobbied for, wholesale abolition of carbon-emission rules and corporate average fuel economy limits, overseen by the EPA and NHTSA, respectively.

The prospect that EPA administrator Scott Pruitt might try to roll back those rules to the levels of earlier years, even abolish tem, makes carmakers far more nervous than they let on.

A pair of articles in The Detroit News by veteran commentator Daniel Howes provides insider context that most Americans outside the Midwestern center of the domestic auto industry never see.

Twice in the last 10 days, Howes noted the industry requires regulatory stability to make best use of investments in future products, technology, and plants running into hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The Detroit industry, he notes, depends on North American pickup trucks and utility vehicles for hefty profits that small and fuel-efficient passenger cars don’t deliver.

So it’s keenly aware that global growth in vehicle sales comes from markets that buy smaller and different kinds of cars.

In other words, Detroit gets that full-size pickups don’t exist in the rest of the world (outside the Mideast), nor will they in the future.

General Motors Renaissance Center, Detroit, Michigan

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It’s also aware that China plans a wholesale conversion to electric cars in the near future, both to attack the hazardous air pollution in all its major cities and to give its domestic industry a leg up on the established companies in the rest of the world.

Because it makes the biggest and thirstiest vehicles, Detroit worries greatly about unfavorable PR blowback. Here’s Howes on the problem, from a piece titled “Auto industry complexities defy easy Trump fix“:

The rhetoric about “rolling back” existing federal fuel economy rules, coming chiefly from the embattled Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, is not sitting well with automakers who say they do not want a rollback.

They say they’re seeking modernization of fuel-economy standards that take into account trends toward hybrids and electrification, autonomy and ride-sharing.

Even as they expand their truck and SUV lineups, Detroit’s automakers are investing heavily in electrification and trying to rebuild their cred with coastal consumers in some of the country’s largest markets.

You’ll note Howes hedges his bets by indicating that’s what the automakers “say”—but we think it’s an accurate portrayal of where the makers stand, with a time horizon measured in three- to 10-year cycles—much longer than any other consumer technology industry.

Over the past decade, the industry has morphed from one in which lower carbon emissions would come from diesel and natural-gas cars to one in which connected, autonomous, fully electric cars are expected to be a reality by 2030.

Car companies want the regulations changed, as Howes points out in an earlier piece, “Automakers playing it two ways on new fuel rules.”

They don’t intend to gloat about it, leaving the aggressive politicking and strong words to their lobbying groups, including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

But as the dysfunction and essential corruption of the EPA under Pruitt spills into public view—his second-in-command is now a coal-industry lobbyist—automakers are starting to wonder what their lobbyists have delivered to them.

Given the administration’s propensity to attack foes and even friends alike, however, they have no intention of saying so.

Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.