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

On 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%[/quote]

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, as market research professionals have known for years. 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.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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6 Comments

  1. Bang on, Chris. Unfortunately, until transportation stops being a political issue (read: never), trash like this will continue to pollute the already diluted stream of information available to auto consumers.

    On the opposite side of the coin, there are obnoxious ads airing on our local radio stations against the White House’s new fuel economy standards, which feature two soccer moms bemoaning the government’s perceived attempt to push the gals away from their SUV’s and toward smaller, “less safe” cars. Puh-leeze.

  2. You’re right, this survey just doesn’t pass the intial sniff test. It is designed to push for a preferred outcome.

    In my informal polling of people I know, there are a lot of people that say that cars and trucks should get 40 mpg, but when you show them something that gets 40 mpg they say “nope”. So I guess that means that other people should buy cars that get 40 mpg in order to reduce gas consumption. Or, they say something even more stupid, “well I’d gladly buy something that gets 40 mpg as long as it has the same power and it’s the same size as what I have now”, and what they have now is a big ol’ Toyota Landcruiser. Now, how is that supposed to happen? Magic dust? Voodoo? Because I can’t think of any other way to go to 40 mpg from 11 mpg without changing anything on a Toyota Landcruiser.

  3. This is a related issue – CAFE is stupid, it doesn’t work, and it should just go away ASAP. People like CAFE because it doesn’t require them to do anything except to keep doing what they’ve always done, which is to keep using as much cheap gasoline as possible.

  4. I think most people in the United States do want cars that get better gas mileage, but as you mention, the problem is that they want the same car or SUV they have now that gets 20 mpg or 12 mpg to return 40 mpg. They want the result, but absolutely no change or sacrifice on their part.

  5. You may be attacking the survey, but the fact remains I DO WANT A VEHICLE WITH OUTSTANDING GAS MILEAGE if, in fact, I can’t have one that doesn’t use petroleum at all! So dog it all you want; it’s still true. And the fact that it is true, means y’all better pay attention. I’ve been car shopping all day…and turning them down left and right because they don’t get good enough gas mileage. I just may drive across the country to get what I want, or leave the country altogether. I WANT TO DRIVE WITHOUT POLLUTING. Thank you. 40 something, female, well-educated and self-UNDERemployed. I prefer to enjoy the good life, not abuse it. Sacrifice is easy if you don’t let other people tell you what to think or how to live.

  6. Hello All,

    A very big unmentioned reason why we have so many large cars is because of car seats. If you have three small children, you must get a minivan size vehicle to hold all the kids in car seats. Then try to take a friend with you …

    Detroit needs to make a family wagon that either has three integrated car seats in the back seat or a third row of seats to hold up to four kids in car seats.

    Making a wide wagon with the ability to hold three children in the back seat safely, instead of some huge minivan will require fewer materials and therefore lower costs and be a good starting point to make a more economic vehicle.

    If the wagon scenario isn’t feasible, I’ll go with the minivan format, but I want the mileage to be at least what I get now with the Saturn SW2 (around 28 mpg).

    My car is about ten years old, I would hope that the technology has come along at least to the point that I can get something bigger with the same mileage without costing a fortune.

    My other car is 21 years old. It gets 20 mpg. I am considering that little Mercedes that just came out, but I think I will need that large family car first and then use the SW2 for my commutes instead.

    Regards

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