Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Great Betrayal?

. Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Thomas Friedman writes in today's New York Times about Toyota NA's efforts to block higher fuel efficiency standards now being considered in Congress. Friedman joins environmental groups in dismay that "Toyota, which pioneered the industry-leading, 50-miles-per-gallon Prius hybrid, has joined with the Big Three U.S. automakers in lobbying against the tougher mileage standards in the Senate version of the draft energy bill."

He also thinks he knows why: "Now why would Toyota, which has used the Prius to brand itself as the greenest car company, pull such a stunt? Is it because Toyota wants to slow down innovation in Detroit on more energy efficient vehicles, which Toyota already dominates, while also keeping mileage room to build giant pickup trucks, like the Toyota Tundra, at the gas-guzzler end of the U.S. market?"

One thing I find odd about this is Friedman's implicit assumption that better fuel efficiency by Detroit requires legislated standards, yet simultaneous recognition that Toyota has developed hybrids that beat existing standards. Ergo, innovation has occurred in the absence of and seems to be independent of legislation.

The bigger problem is that Friedman is wrong about why Toyota is lobbying against the proposed regulations. He seems to suggest that Toyota is engaged in activity intended to discourage American producers from "innovating" in order to retain their advantage (using existing technology, e.g., hybrids, is not innovating, by the way, but that's beside the point).

There seems a much simpler and less conspiratorial explanation: Toyota is trying to protect the return on the assets it holds in the United States. Friedman seems to assume that Toyota is one company with a unified balance sheet. That's probably not the right way to look at it. Toyota NA is a subsidiary of Toyota Motor, and as such has a distinct set of productive assets based in the U.S.. Toyota NA's assets (i.e., the plants located in the US) are engaged in the production of cars and light trucks and SUVs. By my simple calculations, each year Toyota produces 361,000 trucks and SUVs in its American plants against 367,000 Camrys and Corollas. About one-third of the Camrys are 6 cylinder, and very few are hybrids. This distribution of production is sufficient to meet current standards: lower-mileage trucks are offset by higher-mileage cars; on average they meet fleet standards.

Sharply increasing fuel efficiency standards will force Toyota to reduce the relative importance of trucks/SUVs to smaller cars in its US production. This is costly. Either some assets now engaged in truck production must be redeployed (at positive cost) or Toyota must make new investments in small car production in the US. Both are costly for Toyota. All else being equal, therefore, Toyota's American assets will earn a higher return without the regulation than with the proposed regulation.

In short, Toyota NA joins Detroit in opposition to the higher proposed standards because its US production structure looks a lot like "American" producers when it comes to the distribution of its productive assets across car and truck production. This is hardly surprising, given that all auto producers have built what Americans have wanted to buy (large inefficient SUVs). Consequently, Toyota's regulatory preferences are quite similar to Detroit's.

Finally, is Toyota's position treasonous to the environmental cause it supposedly champions? Friedman seems to think so (the title, after all, is Et tu, Toyota?). Yet, although the Prius may be green, Toyota did not produce it because it was green. Toyota built the Prius because it believed many people would buy it, and as a consequence it could make money. It turns out they were right. Hence, the factors that now motivate Toyota's resistance to proposed fuel economy regulations are the very ones that led them to produce the Prius. This is not treason; it's business.


The Great Betrayal?




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