Over the years, Toyota has built a reputation among consumers as an auto company that pays more than lip service to environmental concerns.
Before status among green-focused consumers meant Tesla, the Toyota Prius held sway, with the likes of Larry David and Jessica Alba among the confirmed or rumored drivers.
But a science advocacy group says Toyota's decision, which the automaker defends, to side with the Trump administration against California over emissions rules could damage that image.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, which is on the opposite side of Toyota in this legal battle, is pointing to results from a poll it commissioned that highlights a dramatic drop in favorability for the Japanese automaker over the issue.
The group is banking that Toyota consumers, more so than others, will react negatively when they learn that the company supports the Trump administration's effort to revoke California's authority to set its own emissions standards, an issue near and dear to people concerned about air quality and climate change.
Ultimately, the group says it wants the issue to be on consumers' radar but doesn't plan an extensive shaming campaign.
Toyota is not alone in siding with the Trump administration position. General Motors, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Nissan among others also support the administration in the legal fight, even as Ford, Volkswagen, BMW and Honda have a deal with California on mileage and emissions standards. The Union of Concerned Scientists joined a federal court fight to try to stop the administration from revoking California's waiver under the Clean Air Act. California, which has more than 30 million motor vehicle registrations, sets emissions standards that are followed by more than a dozen states.
"Toyota is one of the leading companies of this, but I think more than anyone else, they've built a brand on being green," Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Hybrids have been core to their identity in the U.S. over the past two decades. ... Obviously we would hope that when they see the impact that this could have on their brand that it would cause them to rethink the support."
The potential reputational damage, the union says, is borne out by polling of 1,000 Toyota consumers nationwide, both Democrats and Republicans, from last month.
"Initially, 78% of all Toyota owners said that they would definitely purchase another Toyota. After learning more about the lawsuit, that number drops to less than half of all Toyota owners (47%)," according to the results, which were provided to the Free Press. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Pollster Matt George said the results should concern Toyota, in particular, because of the negative reaction from younger Toyota owners, those 18 to 34. Four in 10 of those consumers who initially said they would purchase another Toyota said they would consider switching brands over Toyota's stance, a situation that could be more concerning for the automaker because few of those polled (15%) were fully aware of the issue.
Toyota, like other automakers, has said its main focus in siding with the Trump administration is to ensure a single national mileage standard, and that the company is still focused on the environment.
"We do not believe that there should be different fuel economy standards in different states. There should be one standard for all Americans and all auto companies. That is why we decided to be part of this legal matter. Doing so does not diminish our commitment to the environment, nor does it lower our desire to manufacture vehicles that produce fewer emissions year-after-year," according to a statement the company released in October.
The legal fight against California pairs with the administration's effort to roll back planned Obama-era vehicle mileage improvements. That piece is expected to be unveiled before long. On Wednesday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a statement, saying it and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had initiated a key step in the process, a review by the Office of Management and Budget.
"While the draft will not become public until OMB completes the review and the rule is published, EPA and NHTSA firmly believe this rule will benefit all Americans by improving the U.S. fleet's fuel economy, reducing air pollution, helping make new vehicles more affordable for all Americans. And because new vehicles are safer than ever, the standards set by the SAFE Vehicles Final Rule will ultimately save thousands of lives and reduce the number of Americans seriously injured in car crashes. When finalized, this rule will be a win for all Americans," NHTSA said in a statement, about what is termed the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles Final Rule.
The administration has argued that its efforts would reduce costs for consumers, making them more likely to buy new safer and more efficient vehicles, an argument disputed by many environmental and consumer advocates.
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