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Sexy ads created hot demand for SUVs. Now automakers are using those preferences to weaken fuel efficiency

  • The Trump administration plans to weaken vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards citing auto industry complaints that the current targets are too hard to reach because of consumer demand for SUVs.
  • Yet, its the auto industry that creates the demand by spending billions of dollars on sexy advertising to push SUVs on consumers.
Source: Jeep

It's driving across rugged terrain in the great outdoors. It's splashing through mud. Maybe it's racing a wild animal. A deep voice announces that it has V8 engines and dual power steering.

It's manly. It's patriotic. It's a commercial for a gas-guzzler.

Light trucks and SUVs are a cash cow for automakers and have the highest profit margins in their fleets. So it's unsurprising that the auto industry spends billions of dollars on sexy advertising to push them on consumers.

But now the industry cites the predictable outcome of its own marketing as a reason to hamstring a critical environmental and health protection.

This week the Trump administration announced that it plans to weaken vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards for model years 2022-2025. The decision cited the auto industry's complaint that the popularity of larger vehicles makes hitting fuel-efficiency targets more difficult.

Yet the industry's advertising and profit motives play a considerable part in generating that popularity.

It's a tactic that dates back to the 1970s when the Clean Air Act authorized the EPA to regulate vehicle tailpipe emissions. Automakers realized they could increase their profit margins by driving consumers to trucks, which then as now were subject to less stringent requirements than passenger cars.

Enter the 1974 Jeep Cherokee. The first vehicle officially marketed as an SUV was hyped with outdoorsy advertisements appealing to the sporty American family.

Other companies followed suit and have heavily advertised SUVs, pickup trucks and crossovers as cool, strong, adventurous-but-safe vehicles ever since.

According to data collected by Alphonso – a TV ad tracking firm - and analyzed by my organization, nine of the 10 vehicles most heavily advertised on nationwide television during the last quarter of 2017 were SUVs or pickup trucks.

Though automakers are investing in low- and zero-emission vehicles, it's not translating to advertising and consumer awareness.

UC Davis researchers found that most new car buyers surveyed in California—the largest electric-vehicle market in the nation—can't correctly name a plug-in electric vehicle presently for sale. Fewer respondents in 2017 were able to do so than in 2014, even though the number of makes and models of these vehicles nearly doubled during that time.

The current popularity of trucks and SUVs is also tied to low oil prices. But those won't last forever. In fact, automakers' oversupply of SUVs and light trucks is blamed for declining sales and profits among Detroit's Big Three during the mid-2000s when oil prices rose.

And those aren't the only reasons why pointing to "consumer preference" to weaken emissions standards is deceptive. A new poll released by the American Lung Association found that nearly 70 percent of voters want the EPA to leave the current standards in place.

The current standards, which the Obama administration negotiated with automakers in 2011, would halve carbon dioxide emissions from tailpipes by 2025. It would be the equivalent of a fleetwide average of 54.5 mpg if met through fuel-efficiency improvements alone.

Now that vehicles are the nation's largest source of climate pollution, these standards are crucial. Shifting to cleaner vehicles would also protect people, particularly children and the elderly, from toxic tailpipe pollution. The EPA estimated that the standards would help avoid up to 2,000 premature deaths per year when fully in place.

In January 2017 the EPA published a midterm evaluation of the standards, concluding that they were readily achievable for automakers, would achieve huge benefits for the public and save consumers money at the pump and should not be rolled back. Since the rules were established the technology has rapidly improved and compliance costs are much lower than estimated.

Meanwhile, the electric car industry in China is exploding. Chinese companies have nearly a 90-percent market share on electric vehicles. Taking America out of the running in the global race to clean up our cars can only lead to the next wave of bankruptcies and bailouts.

Trump is helping our most polluting automakers fuel the climate crisis and poison our air, all while shooting our economy in the foot. And he's letting consumers shoulder the blame.

Commentary by Vera Pardee, a senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute.

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