Trump misled viewers on clean cars and gas mileage

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 30, 2020

President Trump misrepresented his rollback of clean car standards and his record on electric vehicle subsidies at the first presidential debate last night, in a remarkably substantive exchange on climate and transportation policy.

As part of an unexpected series of questions on climate change, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked Trump why he loosened fuel economy standards established by former President Obama, a move that will increase pollutants in the atmosphere. Trump said earlier that he wanted “immaculate air.”

“Why have you relaxed fuel economy standards that are going to create more pollution from cars and trucks?” Wallace asked the president.

Trump responded by asserting that the rollback, which is formally known as the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule, would make cars safer and cheaper.

“What’s happening is the car is much less expensive, and it’s a much safer car, and you’re talking about a tiny difference,” Trump said.

“And then what would happen, because of the car, you would have at least double and triple the number of cars purchased,” he continued. “We have the old slugs out there that are 10, 12 years old. If you did that, the car would be safer, it would be much cheaper by $3,500.”

Trump’s claims echoed an argument made by top officials at EPA and the Department of Transportation, the two agencies that crafted the SAFE Vehicles rule.

The argument goes like this: The rollback will reduce the price of new cars. That will encourage more Americans to replace their older cars with newer, safer models. Administration officials say that would prevent thousands of fatal car crashes.

But environmental and public interest groups have found that the Trump administration misinterpreted something called the “rebound effect,” an economic theory that predicts people will drive more if their cars get better gas mileage.

That led the administration to greatly overestimate how many miles people would drive — and how many car crashes would occur — if the Obama-era standards were left in place.

In addition, the text of the rule itself states that the rollback could significantly increase air pollution from vehicle tailpipes, which could lead to an additional 444 to 1,000 premature deaths from respiratory illnesses — canceling out the avoided deaths from car crashes (Climatewire, April 2).

Regarding Trump’s claim that the rule would lower the price of new cars, a recent analysis by Consumer Reports found that the rollback would cause each American driver to spend an additional $3,200 at the gas pump to fill up their less fuel-efficient cars.

Trump went on to declare: “The car has gotten so expensive because they have computers all over the place for an extra little bit of gasoline.”

The president has made a similar statement before, saying in December that the Obama-era clean car rules would require “extra computers put on the engine.” That remark previously caused some head-scratching among experts, who said it revealed the president’s lack of understanding about vehicle design (Climatewire, Dec. 10, 2019).

Trump finished off his remarks on cars by boasting that he supported electric vehicle subsidies.

“I’m OK with electric cars too, I think — I’m all for electric cars,” he said. “I’ve given big incentives for electric cars. But what they’ve done in California is just crazy.”

In fact, the president’s last two budget requests to Congress have proposed eliminating the federal EV tax credit, which allows people who purchase EVs to receive up to $7,500 after filing their tax returns (E&E News PM, Feb. 10).

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, only gave cars a brief mention, touting his plan to build 500,000 public EV-charging stations across the country.

Biden has not committed to banning sales of gas-powered cars, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) committed to do by 2035 in a recent executive order.