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Automakers caught in political crossfire over tailpipe emissions

Illustration of multiple sets of business people arguing in the exhaust of a giant tailpipe
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Automakers are choosing sides in the increasingly heated political debate over vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards in an attempt to protect the investments they've made in a clean energy economy.

The big picture: President Trump is at war with California on multiple fronts, and carmakers are caught in the crossfire. Despite their differences, the carmakers are united on this: only one emissions rule should apply across the country.

Driving the news: GM, Toyota, Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai, Nissan and others this week announced they are joining the Trump administration's side in litigation to block California from setting its own emissions rules.

  • Critics pounced, accusing the companies of hypocrisy for promising to deliver cleaner cars while siding with Trump, who wants to roll back strict Obama-era federal standards.
  • Four other big automakers — Ford, VW, Honda and BMW — had already made a deal with the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to cut emissions about 3.7% a year between 2020 and 2026 (vs. roughly 5% under the Obama rules).

Between the lines: Automakers are reluctant to talk openly about the politically sensitive topic. Privately, though, nearly a dozen companies on both sides claim their approach is the quickest way to settle the regulatory uncertainty that is hampering future product development.

  • "This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, with this administration, for a federal program —and with a Supreme Court that just might side with him," a vice president at one automaker tells Axios.
  • Others look at stricter regulations in China and Europe and say California's more aggressive stance will help achieve global harmonization on emissions rules.
  • Toyota North America CEO Jim Lentz warns of unintended consequences: If tougher rules put new technologies out of reach for already-stretched consumers, they'll hold onto their polluting cars even longer, defeating the goal of fighting climate change.

Yes, but: The issues are complex, and each company's position is not as black-and-white as it seems.

The latest: Where they line up depends mostly on their sunk investments in future powertrains and how they think consumer demand will evolve. To date, most consumers don't want hybrids or EVs; they want trucks and SUVs.

  • Toyota, which sells more hybrids than all other carmakers combined, says it's supporting Trump to gain leverage for a regulatory compromise.
  • Worth noting, however: Under California's rule, Toyota stood to lose 71.4 million federal greenhouse gas credits it had stockpiled from selling all those Prius hybrids, potentially worth billions of dollars.
  • GM, meanwhile, touts its commitment to zero emissions, but sided with Trump, too. Insiders say one reason is GM's belief that the California plan favors hybrids — which it doesn't plan to sell — over electric vehicles. (CARB officials dispute that assertion but until the rule is finalized, it's hard to say.)
  • Volkswagen, like GM, plans a slew of EVs but it sided with CARB partly because it's still in the doghouse for cheating on diesel emissions standards several years ago.
  • Foreign carmakers, in particular, are worried about angering Trump, who is still weighing big tariffs on auto imports that could wreak havoc on their business.

What to watch: The Trump administration may be willing to bend.

  • The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday night that the White House is backing away from a plan to freeze tailpipe-emissions targets at current levels and is now considering requiring a 1.5% annual reduction instead.
  • California says that's not enough, the Sacramento Bee reports.

Go deeper: Trump's war with California leaves automakers with nowhere to hide