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Et Tu, Toyota?

By Thomas L. Friedman (The New York Times) - January 4, 2007

What is it about Michigan that seems to encourage assisted suicide?

That is all I can think watching Michigan congressmen and senators, led by Representative John Dingell, doing their best imitations of Jack Kevorkian and once again trying to water down efforts by Congress to legislate improved mileage standards for Detroit in the latest draft energy bill.

Look, I get pork-barrel politics. I understand senators from oil states protecting the windfall profits of oil companies. Ditto for farm subsidies. It’s an old story: Protect my winnings, and I’ll reward you with campaign contributions. I get it. I get it.

What I don’t get is empty-barrel politics — Michigan lawmakers year after year shielding Detroit from pressure to innovate on higher mileage standards, even though Detroit’s failure to sell more energy-efficient vehicles has clearly contributed to its brush with bankruptcy, its loss of market share to Toyota and Honda — whose fleets beat all U.S. automakers in fuel economy in 2007 — and its loss of jobs. G.M. today has 73,000 working U.A.W. members, compared with 225,000 a decade ago. Last year, Toyota overtook G.M. as the world’s biggest automaker.

Thank you, Michigan delegation! The people of Japan thank you as well.

But assisting Detroit’s suicide seems to be contagious. Everyone wants to get in on it, including Toyota. Toyota, which pioneered the industry-leading, 50-miles-per-gallon Prius hybrid, has joined with the Big Three U.S. automakers in lobbying against the tougher mileage standards in the Senate version of the draft energy bill.

Now why would Toyota, which has used the Prius to brand itself as the greenest car company, pull such a stunt? Is it because Toyota wants to slow down innovation in Detroit on more energy efficient vehicles, which Toyota already dominates, while also keeping mileage room to build giant pickup trucks, like the Toyota Tundra, at the gas-guzzler end of the U.S. market?

“Toyota wants to keep its green halo and beat G.M. in the big trucks, too,” said Deron Lovaas, vehicles expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “As the world’s largest automaker and inventor of the best-selling hybrid car, Toyota has a responsibility to lead, follow or get out of the way as Congress debates the first substantial fuel-economy boost in decades. Shamefully, Toyota has joined forces with older automakers that are getting their lunch handed to them in the marketplace, in part because they’ve consistently shunned fuel efficiency.”

Irv Miller, a Toyota vice president, used the company’s corporate blog to refute charges that it is “trying to move America backward on gas mileage.” “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said, because Toyota also favors improved mileage standards.

Not so fast. Here are the facts: Thanks to the Michigan delegation, U.S. mileage standards for passenger car fleets have been frozen at 27.5 miles per gallon since 1985. Light trucks are even worse. The Senate energy bill calls for U.S. automakers to achieve a corporate average fuel economy of 35 m.p.g. by 2020. The Big Three and Toyota are lobbying to kill the Senate version and replace it with a loophole-laden increase to 32 to 35 m.p.g. by 2022. (Only the U.S. auto industry would try to postpone innovation.) The difference between the two is millions of gallons of gas.

Don’t be fooled. Japan and Europe already have much better mileage standards for their auto fleets than the U.S. They both have many vehicles that could meet the U.S. goal for 2020 today, and they are committed to increasing their fleet standards toward 40 m.p.g. and above in the coming decade. So Toyota, in effect, is lobbying to keep U.S. standards — in 2022 — well behind what Japan’s will be.

Representative Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, said to me that Toyota could meet a 35 m.p.g. standard in Japan and Europe today, “but here — even though they bombard Americans with ads about how energy efficient Toyota is — they are fighting the 35 m.p.g. standard for 2020.”

Mr. Markey said he has tried to persuade Toyota that “a lot of people have bought Priuses or Camry hybrids to fight global warming and reduce our dependence on foreign oil” and “they would be shocked to find out” that Toyota is lobbying against the highest m.p.g. standards for America.

Sad. If Toyota were to take the lead on this front, it could enhance its own reputation and spur the whole U.S. auto industry to become more globally competitive. Hey, Toyota, if you are going to become the biggest U.S. automaker, could you at least bring to America your best practices — the ones that made you the world leader — instead of prolonging our worst practices? We have enough people helping us commit suicide.