The auto PR car crash

Car with exhaust

Powerful industries have a long history of combatting public-interest regulations with funding, lobbying, marketing and PR. Big tobacco’s success in holding the line for decades against science demonstrating the harm smoking generates is a case in point.

Those PR tactics can often be dirty, using front groups and false suggestions of operating in the public interest — it’s a fairly predictable script.

In the most recent instalment, the auto industry’s covert PR campaign to combat tougher CO2 regulations on vehicle emissions was exposed early this month.

A reporter for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald obtained a copy of a PR strategy aiming to delay Australia’s transition to electric vehicles and hamper a key part of the nation’s climate change plan.

The strategy, developed by the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) — the peak body representing our 39 leading auto brands — aims to ensure new fuel efficiency standards have some of the weakest carbon emission rules in the world.

It raises several dilemmas, including over the ethics of the PR practitioners who developed the plan, the implications for those auto brands claiming to be operating with public purpose, and the potential efficacy of the plan now its motives have been revealed.

It makes you question the judgement and morality of big auto companies such as Volkswagon, and subsidiaries including Audi, whose reputations are just recovering after being exposed for cheating emissions controls.

For those of you who missed it, Volkswagen reluctantly admitted in September 2015 that it had installed ‘defeat devices’ in millions of its cars. The software detected when cars were being emissions tested, and adjusted the engines so that they passed. But in normal use, the engines emitted far more pollution.

The ramifications of the scandal are still reverberating, including a $US2.8 billion penalty in the States and a $125 million fine here.

The stakes over auto emissions are significant, given transport is Australia’s third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and those emissions are rising.

The FCAI documents acknowledge that regulation and deeper emissions cuts are coming, and calls for a boost in electric car charging points and other infrastructure, while fighting to keep fuel efficiency standards favourable to car manufacturers.

The FCAI aims to position itself “as a thought leader and trusted voice on reducing emissions”, the documents say, while lobbying policymakers behind the scenes to adopt rules that would preserve petrol and hybrid cars.

They outline public relations efforts from now until October, with a program of targeted briefings, a green paper for government, and a “thought leadership roadshow” consisting of roundtables, keynote speeches, newspaper opinion pieces and a “targeted media campaign”.

There is “an opportunity for the FCAI to try to promote a consumer-friendly narrative capable of becoming the accepted wisdom among those with an interest in EVs,” its public relations strategy says.

It seeks to ensure new passenger cars sold in 2030 could still pump out an average of at least 98 grams of CO2 per kilometre, the leaked documents show. By comparison, European standards now specify 95 grams of CO2 per kilometre.

An unspoken agenda is to counter the push for an early ban on petrol powered vehicles, like the one announced in Europe, which will ban almost all new petrol and diesel vehicles, including hybrids, in 13 years. Britain plans to ban the sale of most new petrol and hybrid cars from 2030.

The impact of the revelations on individual brands may be diffused as they come from a peak body, rather than a single identifiable company.

The strategy mirrors some overseas approaches by car manufacturers such as Toyota, combining public statements about environmental stewardship with behind-the-scenes pressure on policymakers to weaken regulation of car emissions.

Toyota formed ‘Team Japan’ along with Subaru, Mazda, Kawasaki and Yamaha to defend petrol and hybrid cars in the face of competition from electric vehicles in Japan.

Last year, Toyota refused to commit to a Glasgow Declaration pledge to phase out fossil fuel cars by 2040, saying “an environment suitable for promoting full zero emission transport has not yet been established” in many parts of the world.

In Australia, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries’ membership is based on market share, with the biggest manufacturers, such as Toyota, dominant. Its chair is Toyota Australia’s chief executive, Matthew Callachor.

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