Toyota discovery: it’s not easy being green
Building on the Prius’ image, Toyota has been regarded by many as concerned with the environment. “Green,” in other words. Never mind that it builds Tundras that are at least as big and hulking as anything built by General Motors or Ford.
But now Toyota has been hit with a concerted campaign of criticism, orchestrated by the anti-car lobby lead buy a New York Times columnist with an anti-car reputation who is acting in concert with liberal anti-car “public interest” groups.
The first wave of the attack was launched in the New York Times, regarded by some as the house organ for liberal Democrats by Times columnist Thomas Friedman. He went after Toyota because, in common with the Detroit automakers, Toyota opposes the increase in Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards adopted in by the United States Senate and prefers the version adopted in the House of Representatives. The two versions are now being reconciled in “conference committee,” so the Senate version is being pushed again by Democrats. A similar proposal had been blocked in the House of Representatives by another Democrat: Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.
The attack on Toyota has been coordinated with those shadowy “public interest” outfits supported by various political groups.
The “National Resources Defense Council,” for example, claimed it had forwarded to Toyota more than 8,100 messages critical of the company for agreeing with the Detroit automakers.
Toyota has responded on its blog, both defending itself and attacking the Democrat sponsored Senate bill. Irv Miller, Toyota’s group vice president for corporate communications, said the House proposal establishes a standard which is "a huge number by any estimate, and a number comparable to the competing, but far less technologically feasible, proposals," a clear slap at the Senate measure. Today, GM’s Tom Wilkerson also responded on GM’s blog, pointing out the fallacies and misstatements in Friedman’s polemic.
Automakers have estimated that meeting the Senate standard would require price increases of $5,000 per car. Though many of the usually outspoken “safety” groups, such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and other Nader-funded groups, are politically aligned with the sponsors of the Senate legislation and have been (for them) unusually quiet about the threat the Senate bill poses to the public, other groups have asserted that adoption of those standards will kill thousands more in traffic fatalities because the smaller cars required to meet them won’t be safe.
This is a battle to watch.
There has been an anti-automobile segment in American society since the 1950’s. It started with safety issues and hit its stride with Ralph Nader’s successful, if unfair, attack on the Corvair. The auto industry had opened itself to attack because it had failed to take leadership in public safety, waiting until legislation forced it to take the problem seriously. That set a pattern, both in public image and future legislation: an industry that would do nothing unless forced to do so, but could then do anything they were told to do.
The core mentality of the anti-car segment, however, is not safety oriented, or even environmentally oriented, per se.
What they really want to do is take away the car.
This is a segment which believes that there should be no suburbs, that “urban sprawl” is not an opportunity for Americans to own nice homes in nice places but is, instead, the cause of ghettos and poverty, for which suburbanites should pay. They resent freeways and believe that Americans should be forced to take the bus. They want the tax dollars reserved for highways spent, instead, on trolleys and mass transit.
The auto industry has always attempted to deal with this segment rationally. It has failed to realize that logic is irrelevant to this discussion, because it is about a much larger issue than the environment or safety: it’s about the car. This group doesn’t like cars. Period.
As there is no chance that society is prepared to outlaw cars, they are going after the industry that produces cars, to make cars so unattractive and expensive that people either won’t want them or can’t afford them.
To this mentality, the investment and efforts of the auto industry in developing hybrid vehicles and alternative fuel technology are simply proof that there’s a conspiracy in the industry against the environment. Rather than acknowledging that the industry has made a massive investment in these technologies, these people treat it as proof that carmakers could have done it in 1912 and have been suppressing the technology ever since.
The fight over CAFE standards is deadly real. The attack on Toyota is designed to neutralize one deadly element of the opposition – an element that has credibility because its development and promotion of the Prius undercuts everything this crowd has been saying.
Toyota didn’t develop the Prius because Congress told it to. It developed it for exactly the same reason that it put the new Tundra on the market: it though it could sell it at a profit. Toyota did such a good job of it that they moved the Prius into the top ten in sales and are now planning to make it a stand-alone brand.
Toyota is being attacked precisely because it has been environmentally aware. It identified a market for a hybrid and it filled it, with a good car at a price that sold. In so doing, it forced others to look at that market segment in order to compete.
The notion that the market cannot decide between Tundras and Prius’ – the basic premise of the legislation offered in the Senate (and, in reality, the House, too) – is proven wrong by the Prius.
And that proves that Mr. Friedman is either ignorant, a liar, or even worse: a fool.