10 June 2007

75% of Americans Favor 40 mpg by 2010? Really?

Last Wednesday, an organization called the Civil Society institute, which advocates a 40 miles per gallon CAFE standard for US vehicles by 2010, issued a press release that has been picked up by a few news outlets. Here is a link to the press release.

They claim that an overwhelming majority of Americans favor a more radical increase in the CAFE fuel economy standards than even Congress is pushing for, based on a “scientific survey” that they sponsored. I was dubious of these claims, so I dug a little further. Before I even get into the flaws in their specific survey, let’s think about a few things.

The formal report has confidence intervals and all sorts of fancy statistical justifications, but the fact is, the questions are terrible. You can have the best sample of respondents in the world, but if your questions have an inherent bias or flaw, then your survey is flawed. They also don’t say whether the survey companies identified themselves as representing an organization that advocates 40 mpg fuel economy standards by 2010, but the tone of the questions makes it clear to the respondent what response the question wants them to have.

Here is their full report (PDF format), and below are the questions they asked. My commentary is in italics below each question.

1. European and Asian vehicles have higher fuel efficiency than those here in the United States. More than 100 vehicles that get 40 miles per gallon or more are already for sale outside of the United States...versus just two that get over 40 miles per gallon here in the United States. Knowing that, which of the following approaches would you prefer to raising U.S. fuel efficiency standards?

  • Moving NOW to raise the average fuel-efficiency levels to 40 miles per gallon by 2010: 76%
  • Wait until 2018 to raise average fuel efficiency levels tp [sic] 35 miles per gallon: 15%
  • Don't know: 9%

The first question has a few problems. It does not offer the option of "do nothing." I'm sure that more than a handful of people are more than happy with the current standards as they are, or are dissatisfied with CAFE (as I am). Yet, the only choices are "40 mpg by 2010" "wait until 2018, and only to 35 mpg," or "don't know." So again, they're not actually asking people how to increase fuel economy, but asking them which one they prefer. They also misstate their first "fact" to open the question; it should be "Many vehicles sold in Europe and Asia have higher fuel efficiency..." Not all, as they imply. Last I checked, BMW 760iLs, Ferrari 360s, Porsche 911 Turbos did not exceed 40 mpg. Europe and Asia also do not have CAFE, but instead have gas taxes to reduce consumption.

2. I now want you to think about the 2008 elections. In general would you be more or less likely to SUPPORT a candidate for federal office - Congress or the White House - who advocated a 40 mpg fuel efficiency standard as a way to lower global warming and reduce U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil?

  • Definitely more likely: 23%
  • Probably more likely: 29%
  • About the same: 28%
  • Probably less likely: 6%
  • Definitely less likely: 9%
  • Don't know: 5%

Next, in the middle question about supporting a candidate in favor of 40 mpg, they mention the positives of the 40 mpg mandate in the question ("lower global warming and reduce U.S. reliance on Middle Eastern oil") but don't mention the downsides (loss of US manufacturing jobs, building cars that people don't really want to buy, etc.) So that question is inherently biased.

3. How likely is it that you will vote in the 2008 Presidential and Congressional elections?

  • Very likely: 78%
  • Somewhat likely: 7%
  • Not very likely: 3%
  • Do not plan to vote: 10%
  • Don't know: 2%

According to this, between 78% and 85% of a "random" sample of the public plans to vote in the 2008 presidential election. Thomas Jefferson would be thrilled, considering that the highest turnout in the past 47 years was in 1960 at 63.1%, and it was 55.3% in the 2004 election. They want us to believe that they have captured the voice of the voter, but it's pretty implausible that voter turnout will suddenly increase by between 41% and 54%. (Link to turnout data.)

Things like this are so frustrating to read. And of course because these people with an obvious agenda put it on the PR newswire, more news outlets desperate for cheap content will pick up on it, not read into it or question it at all, and consider it "fact."

It's a shame, but our society always expects to get something for nothing. A war without casualties. A big, fast car or truck that gets 40 mpg. Lower taxes but no reduction in government services or increase in the deficit. The way the first question was phrased, the question sounds like there’s no cost to the consumer, but there is. Nothing is for free. They'll either get slow cars, small cars, unsafe cars, or expensive cars. I can assure you that they will not be fast, large, safe, and inexpensive at the same time. Since it appears that things such as the likelihood of passing on research and development costs to consumers, automakers, or the government was mentioned at all during the course of the study, and if it wasn’t, what effect doing so would have had on the group’s findings. I’m betting that the findings would be very different.

Also, what people do and what they say are two very different things. Consumers can buy a 40 mpg vehicle today, yet few are buying them. Instead, they get a large 18-25 mpg vehicle and gripe about how much gas it uses. Personally, I have yet to complain about getting 16.5 mpg in my midsize SUV because I knew going into it that I'd get that mileage. We just drive our car when we don't need the space (or navigation system) that the SUV has, and we're fine. Consumers have voted with their wallets, and the types of “city cars” sold in Europe and Asia that exceed 40 miles per gallon are not lighting up the US sales charts. Automobile manufacturers build the cars that people actually buy, not the ones that groups such as CSI want people to buy.


Jake said...

You make a great point that automakers provide automobiles that consumers want and choose on their own, not based on what Congress decides. Automakers are committed to providing consumers with alternative fuel automobiles and there are already 11 million of these automobiles on the road today.

I'm working with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers to spread the word about ill advised CAFE standards that are part of legislation being debated right now, S.1419. CAFE is a one-dimensional and incomplete program. Any transportation energy policy must be comprehensive and multi-dimensional to be effective, and we believe that all sectors of the economy, not just transportation and certainly not just automakers.

Check out our site www.drivecongress.com for more info. Thanks.

69Firebird400 said...

Jake, I went to your website, and it's pretty vague. There is a better alternative - but we're not going to say what it is???

Personally, I think the full size SUV culture and the horsepower war (however nice they are for me as a car guy) are unsustainable. What I don't believe in is arbitrary fuel economy requirements when the buying public has voted against them with their wallets for the past 30 years. I do think that incentives for alternative fuel research - and more importantly adoption - such as an increased tax on petroleum-based fuels, offset by a reduction in the income tax, to give consumers a little incentive to step away from the Suburbans.

Oh, and having E85 capable vehicles is for no reason other than to take advantage of a CAFE loophole allowing larger, less efficient vehicles as long as they CAN run on E85. Considering there are 7 stations in PA selling E85 to the public, FFVs aren't really making an impact without another incentive to give people the convenience of having E85 more widely available and making it more attractive financially than regular gasoline.

Anonymous said...

Well, average people still believe that there are 'secret 100 MPG carbs' or 'hidden technology' that Detroit and the oil companies are supressing. Do they still think that 90% of cars come from Motown?

If such 'secret technology' existed, Toyota would have 100 MPG Tundras and Sequoias for sale.