EcoDriving USA The Auto Industry’s Response to Low Car Sales, High Gas Prices, Climate Change… and the 2008 Election Campaign Debates on Energy Policy

This month CHW profiles EcoDriving, an auto industry campaign launched over the summer when driving prices were at their highest. Our report describes the campaign, analyzes the auto industry’s motivation for launching it now and looks at the presidential candidates’ stance on energy policy.

The US Department of Transportation announced that Americans drove 53 billion fewer miles on US roads this year compared to last year,1 a record decline attributed to the soaring price of gasoline. To capitalize on this trend and to forestall or weaken new federal fuel economy standards, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group of the American, auto companies and dealers, and two US governors are recommending drivers become individually responsible for their carbon emissions and start “driving green.”

EcoDriving USA, a new auto industry campaign, seeks to inspire consumers to get back into car showrooms and behind the wheel. California Gov. Schwarzenegger, a sponsor of the campaign, says “We hear a lot of ideas from politicians about lowering the gas prices and fighting global warming, whether it’s biofuels, offshore drilling or nuclear power. But none of those will affect the gas prices right now. Only you can do that.”  Ecodriving USA urges drivers to join the “ecodriving movement.”

Many agree that reducing demand for gas will help keep pump prices down, but as new evidence links carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to health and environmental problems, will asking drivers to become responsible for their own fossil fuel emissions be enough?

EcoDriving USA

The campaign hopes to shift consumer habits from driving less, a trend that worries the auto industry, to driving with tactics that can reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. For example, EcoDriving suggests drivers avoid jackrabbit starts, maintain good tire pressure, leave excess cargo at home, and take advantage of synchronized traffic lights.  EcoDriving USA advocates staying on the road with a website full of fuel-saving checklists, a CO2 calculator and a ‘Virtual Road Test’ that allows users to try EcoDriving tips from their computer. Users can learn a few money saving tricks and will also have a chance to learn about the latest fuel efficient models being produced by EcoDriving partners, including BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Volkswagen. According to EcoDriving USA, their ecodriving tips can save consumers about 15% in fuel expenses.

Some critics are not enthusiastic about EcoDriving.  Motor Trend calls its website “redundant, as tips fall short of being revolutionary.”2 In fact, the campaign’s fuel-saving advice is virtually identical to recommendations made by several others, including the US Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at www.fueleconomy.gov. Ecodriving, or hypermiling, was first introduced by the online fuel economy forum www.cleanmpg.com as a combination of driving techniques, that when followed can help to maximize fuel economy.

Human-generated CO2 emissions and health

In 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment report summarized the latest evidence that links human-generated greenhouse gases and global climate change. Other recent reports have spelled out the health implications. For example, a study published this year in Geophysical Research Letters shows a correlation between CO2 emissions and human mortality. The study’s principal investigator, Mark Jacobson says, “The study is the first specifically to isolate carbon dioxide’s effect from that of other global-warming agents and to find quantitatively that chemical and meteorological changes due to carbon dioxide itself increase mortality due to increased ozone, particles and carcinogens in the air.”3

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) newly released Analyses of the Effects of Global Change on Human Health and Welfare and Human Systems describes human health, settlement and welfare vulnerabilities in this country. The report, says that the US can expect health effects that are “very likely to accentuate the disparities already evident in the American health care system,” with the poor, elderly, disabled and uninsured to bear much of the global climate change burden.4

While the report does not respond to specific CO2 emission scenarios, much of the analysis is based on science showing health risks in specific areas and regions. Urban areas, for example, are known to have high CO2 emissions which increase health risks, but the report goes beyond by warning that “the impacts of higher temperatures in urban areas and likely associated increases in tropospheric ozone concentrations can contribute to or exacerbate cardiovascular and pulmonary illness.”4

Fuel economy standards, changes and ‘new’ plans

The US and other large emission polluters are often the target of proposed fuel emission standards change. And with good reason. Using the most current numbers available from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the US is the largest importer and consumer of oil. For example:

  • In 2007, the US consumed over 9.2 million barrels of motor gasoline per day, almost three times more oil than any other country.
  • The US was responsible for the worlds most extensive tailpipe pollution, unloading about 1.9 billion metric tons of CO2 emission in 2004 (three times more than industry, electrical power, residential and commercial CO2 emissions combined) according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Changing this pattern, however, requires changing more than drivers habits. In the US, fuel economy is regulated by CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards which are enforced by a combined effort of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While CAFE places the production of fuel efficient vehicles on automobile manufactures, CAFE standards themselves are determined on a federal level by the Secretary of Transportation.

The most recent changes to fuel efficiency standards came with the new energy bill in late 2007, which calls for a 40% increase (to 35 mpg) in CAFE standards to be realized by 2020. But the Union of Concerned Scientists says Bush administration proposals for achieving the new energy goal leave loopholes for the auto industry and fails to utilize new technologies. Jim Kliesch, a senior engineer with the Clean Vehicles Program said, “Automakers today have technology sitting on their shelves that could cost-effectively improve fuel economy… We could blow the doors off 35 mpg with conventional technology alone, but [the] proposal would leave us stuck in second gear.”5

Energy Policy and the 2008 Presidential Campaign

Policy change that would include reductions in CO2 emissions is a part of each major party Presidential candidates’ energy platform. Senator Obama’s ‘New Energy for America Plan‘ proposes a 4% per year increase in CAFE standards and an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Senator McCain’s ‘Lexington Project‘ calls for enforcing existing CAFE standards and a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While McCain’s plan calls for significant tax cuts for corporations, Obama’s plan seeks to penalize oil companies with a windfall profit tax. For an in depth analysis of industry influence in Obama and McCain’s energy plans see OpenSecrets ‘Power Struggle: Energizing the Presidential Race‘ and Center for American Progress ‘The True Cost of McCain’s Oil Industry Subsidies for Every State.’

Changing Energy Policies and Driving Habits?

While the Presidential candidates debate energy policy, auto makers and dealers are competing for fewer and fewer new car buyers.6 As the industry looks to regain momentum, EcoDriving USA, may be just the marketing technique needed to move customers into the showroom. The campaign’s main sponsor, The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), says it’s on board with the new energy bill. Dave McCurdy, AAM President and CEO says “Congress has set an aggressive, single, nationwide standard and automakers are prepared to meet that challenge. This proposal represents an important mile marker on the road to at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020.”7 Like other industries that have changed tactics after losing regulatory battles, the auto industry now seeks to reframe the debate on fuel efficiency and climate change to more individual terms.

As a blogger from the National Resources Defense Council, Roland Hwang, says the EcoDriving USA campaign is limited because it diverts attention from the need for a federal policy response. “It is clear that EcoDriving programs will never fully replace the need for stricter fuel economy or CO2 standards, especially since we need much deeper cuts in CO2 emissions to solve global warming and break our dependence on oil.”8

More broadly, Ecodriving illustrates the power of industry to mobilize its resources to frame health and environmental issues. Just as Coke and Pepsi propose more physical activity as an antidote to sweetened-beverage induced obesity, Philip Morris urges action against youthful smoking (making it more appealing to youth) and alcohol makers call for “responsible drinking”, the auto industry’s call for ecodriving puts the burden for change on individuals rather than corporations.

References

1. U.S. Department of Transportation. August 13, 2008American Driving Reaches Eighth Month of Steady Decline. Available at: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/pressroom/fhwa0817.htm.

2. Evans, Scott. Auto manufacturers, government take up hypermiling, change name to EcoDriving. Motor Trend. Aug 19 2008. Available at: http://wot.motortrend.com/6285851/green/auto-manufacturers-
government-take-up-hypermiling-change-name-to-ecodriving/
index.html
.

3. Jacobson, MZ. On the causal link between carbon dioxide and air pollution mortality. Geophys Res Lett. 2008;35. Available at: http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2008/2007GL031101.shtml.

4. Analyses of the Effects of Global Change on Human Health and Welfare and Human Systems. Environmental Protection Agency. 2008, p. 18. Available at: http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=175644.

5. New Fuel Economy Proposal Starts Strong, Then Puts on the Brakes: Pace Set in Proposal’s Final Years Would Cause Fleet to Fall Short of Legally Required Minimum, Science Advocacy Group Warns. Union of Concerned Scientists. Press Release. April 22, 2008. Available at: http://www.ucsusa.org/news/press_release/new-fuel-economy-
proposal-star-0111.html
.

6. Bunkley N. U.S. car sales fall sharply in August, but some see signs of respite. International Herald Tribune. Sept 3, 2008. Available at: http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/09/03/business/04auto.php.

7. Automakers respond to new nationwide fuel economy proposal. Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Press Release. April 22, 2008. Available at: http://www.autoalliance.org/index.cfm?objectid=7724C605-1D09-
317F-BB29B57A30F2D182
.

8. Hwang R. Saving Fuel Through “EcoDriving” Can Help Cool Off Oil Prices. Natural Resources Defense Council. Aug 18, 2008. Available at: http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/rhwang/tags/showtag.php?tag=
ecodriving
.

Photo Credits:
1. futureatlas.com
2. Bitpicture
3. post406