Media & Society

Wishful Thinking Vs. Reality: Framing The Future Of Fuel-Efficient Cars

A worker installs components into a Leaf electric vehicle at the company's plant in Kanagawa, Japan. i i

A worker installs components into a Leaf electric vehicle at the company's plant in Kanagawa, Japan. Kazuhiro Nogi/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Kazuhiro Nogi/Getty Images
A worker installs components into a Leaf electric vehicle at the company's plant in Kanagawa, Japan.

A worker installs components into a Leaf electric vehicle at the company's plant in Kanagawa, Japan.

Kazuhiro Nogi/Getty Images

Is the glass half empty or half full for the future of more fuel-efficient cars? How NPR and the news media answer this question in framing stories affects public attitudes and a national willingness to support the conservation effort.

The Obama Administration and automakers recently agreed to make all new cars in America have an average fuel economy by 2025 of 55 miles per gallon – roughly double the current average. The mandate prompted a Morning Edition series on how cars will get there.

"Reaching that goal [55 mpg] will takes feats of engineering and it will require Americans to change how they think about their cars and how they drive them," host Linda Wertheimer said in the introduction to the first part, on electric cars.

It was a negative framing that focused on the difficulty of the challenge, suggesting that it might not be overcome without changing our driving habits and tastes. But Roland Hwang, the transportation director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, complained that NPR and reporter Sonari Glinton were looking at the subject from the wrong angle.

"The fact of the matter is, that is not the case," Hwang said of the negative assumption. He said that an average of 55 mpg is already within reach using existing technology and that no special feats of engineering are required. We the drivers won't have to make major sacrifices. The series should have taken a positive approach, Hwang said.

The difference, then, is not so much over facts, but over the underlying assumptions in how they are presented. Judging between this subtle difference is made all the more difficult by the speculative nature of looking into the future: I have no idea whether car makers will actually meet the goal and Americans will buy more electric, hybrid and modified-gas engine cars. These are the subjects of each of the three parts in the series.

Glinton, moreover, doesn't think that he was being negative, but rather realistic. "Saying something is tough to do is not the same as being negative....I don't think," he said.

I do think that the series would have benefitted from interviewing someone such as Hwang, a mechanical engineer who is an expert on clean vehicle and fuel technologies and has served on many academic and government research panels. On the other hand, the decision has been made jointly with the auto industry to get to the 55 mpg average. So, what was a raging political debate over the targets, if not resolved, has been sidestepped by the Obama Administration and may be pretty much over. This was a series on what's next. It naturally fell to NPR's auto industry reporter, Glinton. His was a how-to story, and it was understandable that he didn't call on advocacy groups.

Hwang's criticism suggests that outside critics should be consulted in future progress stories on reaching the efficiency goal. And Glinton says he will return to the subject. "I feel like I will continually be doing stories about electric cars and car companies as long as I cover the industry," he said. "This is where the heat, the attention, the ad dollars, the science, the policy is being focused."

In deciding how to frame those stories, it is not for NPR or the non-advocacy news media to set out to encourage a certain public attitude. This is what propaganda does. But we do have to be aware of the consequences of the choices we make and try to be as fair as we can, with our limited human faculties.

Ombudsman intern Andrew Maddocks, who has bird-dogged the reporting for this column, put together the following comparison of facts and interpretations about the car goals, especially for electric cars, which opened the NPR series and first attracted Roland's criticism. The comparison is an instructive example of how different people can weigh the same factors in different ways, and choose a positive or negative frame accordingly. On one side is Hwang and Alan Baum, an industry consultant and forecaster. On the other is Glinton and his editor, Uri Berliner. To see how others frame the coverage, here are some related stories from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

I—and I suspect NPR's reporters and editors—would be greatly interested in your view in how this important story should be framed in the future. At the core of the difference below is judging how easy or difficult it will be to reach an overall 55 mpg average, and for electric cars to reach 3 percent market share. The Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration set the 3 percent benchmark, estimating the slice of the automotive market pie electric cars will need to fill to reach the mpg average by 2025.

We mix quotes and paraphrases below. Any factual insights you have to offer would especially be appreciated.


ON WHAT THIS YEAR'S SALES MEAN FOR ELECTRIC CARS REACHING 3 PERCENT OF THE MARKET:

BERLINER: Enough to prove it'll be a challenging goal.

GM sold 5,000 Chevy Volts out of their 10,000 goal. "That's not good any way you slice it. For some perspective, Ford sells about 600,000 F-series pickups a year. And keep in mind the federal government is offering a very generous $7,500 tax credit if you buy an electric car. Given the budget crunch and the uncertainty over next year's election, that tax credit could easily go away."

GLINTON: Meeting the challenge will be tough.

Wide adoption would be a goal of about 3% of the US market. That's a multiple of about 50 times the number that are being sold today (using depressed car sales numbers). Saying something is tough to do is not the same as being negative...I don't think.

HWANG: Not enough to predict, but signs are positive.

"You can't predict the long-term market share of any brand-new technology in the first year." Think about cell phones, microwaves, and laptops. Fourteen years ago, what did people have for cell phones? Ford commissioned a survey of licensed adults 18 years of age and older this year and found:

"Across the U.S., fuel efficiency is by far the most important influencing factor in the vehicle purchasing decision (44 percent), followed by style (16 percent), safety (15 percent) and brand loyalty (12 percent)"

"When asked directly, sixty-one percent of drivers are interested in purchasing an electrified vehicle, with savings on gas being the largest motivating factor; however, gas would need to reach $5 to $6 per gallon to warrant a hybrid or electric vehicle purchase."

Auto production capacity can already handle 4% of market share. Three percent is extremely conservative, on the low end of what we can achieve.


HOW ABOUT THE COST AND RE-CHARGING ANXIETY?

BERLINER: These will likely require a change in consumers to accept.

"More likely it [reaching fuel economy goals] will take a change in consumer expectations about driving and the ability of carmakers to reduce costs so they can build a wide range of affordable, fuel-efficient cars. Not just tiny cars that most Americans don't want to drive."

"Roland did not mention one of the biggest obstacles for the Volt and the Nissan Leaf. They're really expensive! The Volt starts at $41,000. Even if you factor in the tax credit, it costs about the same as a Mercedes-Benz C Class."

He dismisses the problem of access to car chargers as "hand wringing." And then he goes on to note that almost everyone who owns an all-electric Leaf charges the car at home. Well, that's the demographic challenge for the electric car in a nutshell. If you don't own your home, there's really no place to charge your car. There's no infrastructure. If you're an apartment dweller, if you live in a city, or don't have a place with a garage or an external power source, you're out of luck.

HWANG: No big deal.

There are enough people out there who want to use electric vehicles that go 60-100 mile between charges. The Ford survey quoted above confirms this.

BMW field trials showed that drivers' range anxiety decreases once they start driving the electric or plug-in cars. BMW conducted tests with the mini E, a limited-production, converted-electric vehicle. Hwang's attended BMW presentations that argue at first, when people buy they want to know how many public charging stations are out there in case they run out of electricity. BMW found that people driving the cars didn't use public charging, and didn't need it. The stations contributed to the drivers' comfort level, but actually trying the car modified their expectations. As for the higher cost, the middle class is already driving hybrids and electrics in California.


CAN MARKET SHARE GROW TO MORE THAN 5 PERCENT?

HWANG: Yes. The technology and choices stay roughly the same.

On plug-in hybrids: No major technological advances or habit changes are required to sell more plug-in hybrids. You get the option to plug in and not use the gas engine. It's an enhanced option, not something you have to sacrifice. On pure battery electrics: To move beyond five percent market share is a little bit more challenging. No major technological advances are required. "What we need is battery prices to go down." For that to happen, purchasing volume has to go up. It's a chicken-and-egg scenario, but the market's going to be there.

Choice is an important factor in the discussion. In the very near future a whole range of vehicles will be available with ranges from 10-14 miles to 60-100 miles. Whether pure electrics or plug-in hybrids, or even electrics with converted motorcycle engines for emergencies like the BMW i3, there are many ways to address range and price anxiety.


GAS PRICES, GLOBALIZATION, CLIMATE AMD FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN

Hwang: How electric cars work is not a mystery or turn-off.

Critics say that not knowing what is under the hood will turn buyers away. "Once again: no mention of the fact that electric cars use simpler technology than what's found in vehicles using gas-powered internal combustion. In an EV, you pull juice from a battery to drive an electric motor that turns the wheels. Fewer moving parts. Less maintenance."

"You're getting $1 per gallon gas for the life of the vehicle." That'll drive a lot of people to purchase and lock in a very low fuel price. A November Los Angeles Times article said, "If you think gasoline is expensive now, just wait until next year: A combination of growing global demand and rising U.S. fuel exports could send gasoline prices to record highs in 2012, analysts say." Ongoing gas price volatility, and a steady increase in the coming years will make electricity's stable price more attractive.

My colleague Max Baumhefner argues that electricity prices will be stable for the next 24 years, based on Energy Information Agency numbers, at the equivalent of $1 gallon. Meanwhile, as peoples' awareness of climate change grows, low-carbon transportation will become more popular.

Baum: Global harmonization of cars will reduce the costs.

"While the automakers might protest these toughening standards, global harmonization allows for predictable levels which result in greater production volume and spreading of costs across the vehicle fleet. Moreover, global products that are more similar to one another reduce development costs and enable greater profits. The world's leading automakers are moving in this direction, aided by significant financial investment and allocation of key personnel from both current and potential suppliers." Still, it won't be easy.

Andrew Maddocks contributed to this post.

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