From Cup Holders and Pick Up to … Lots More

Reporting on the auto industry, cars and trucks, used to mostly involve lots of detailed analysis of horsepower, pick up, handling, looks, and safety. The beat is broader and more complex now. Over the past few years, the issues and scope of coverage have expanded as the public’s interest in green cars has – excuse the pun – clearly accelerated.

The price of gasoline and the public’s concern about carbon dioxide emissions have changed the auto beat focus away from the sexiness of cars and motors to the serious matter of saving resources.

It’s a tricky and quickly changing beat. As three auto writers questioned for this piece emphasize, the auto industry attunes itself keenly to customer demands. And those, until recently, weren’t green. The industry attunes itself also to gas prices, fashion, economics, and science.

Auto reporters find themselves covering a surge in technological advances aimed at fuel efficiency and consumption of fewer raw materials.

The last five years

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Wired magazine Associate Editor Joe Brown says he can pinpoint the two-week period when the public fascination shifted toward green cars. He says it was during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit five years ago, in January 2003. Many automakers brought demonstration hybrids, vehicles combining a gasoline engine with an electric motor to greatly reduce emissions and increase mileage. They brought them to that show even if they weren’t commercially manufacturing them yet.

“That was the moment when the media started identifying hybrids as a trend,” Brown said.

It was understandable, even if not entirely logical. The first U.S. troops had just arrived in Iraq, and the public fretted about availability and costs of future oil supplies. The consumer seemed unaware that large hybrid cars can be scarcely more efficient than their standard counterparts. But the seed had been planted, even though oil in 2003 was selling at less than $30 a barrel and hybrids still seemed a bit futuristic to many.

As the war continued and gas prices at the pump started rising, the driving public gradually became more interested in fuel efficiency. Today, according to three auto writers, Americans are saying they want more miles per gallon, alternative fuels, and lower carbon dioxide emissions. The automakers are responding to consumer demands, albeit more slowly than critics think they could have.

Add to the mix two recent policy developments. In December, President Bush signed a new energy bill that sets a federal average standard of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Changes in efficiency will begin in 2011. The new law marks the first increase in federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for cars since 1990 and the first major policy change in mileage since the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975. (Gradual increases in mpg standards began with 18 mpg in 1978 and reached 27.5 mpg in 1990, remaining there since. In 2003, Congress voted to slightly improve the light truck and sport utility vehicle standard starting in 2006; it’s currently at 22.2.)

In addition, there’s the continuing court battle between California and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the state’s 2004 quest to force cars sold in the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent between 2009 and 2016.

In mid-December, a California federal judge ruled in the state’s favor, and California by then had applied to EPA for a waiver allowing it to enforce its own regulations. However, the same day the federal energy bill was signed into law, EPA denied the waiver, and California now says it will sue to overturn that decision.

As a result, auto journalists now are likely to be found perusing data about transportation sector emissions, reading the new federal energy bill, or interviewing scientists on the workings of hybrid cars. They of course still write about horsepower, cup holders, and handling too.

One sign of the times concerning changes under way in the auto industry is a January 9 article in the Detroit News, the Detroit daily seen as being generally closely aligned with the industry’s perspective. Automakers “are scrambling to adapt to the sea change in attitude as the American public embraces green ideals,” reported the News‘s Sharon Terlep. Environmentally friendly vehicles now are “a cause that is at once trendy, politically savvy, and increasingly profitable.”

Overview of the auto beat landscape

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Automakers – and perhaps the domestic manufacturers even more than some of the imports – often seem defensive in acknowledging increased customers clamor for better gas mileage.

The industry is intricately tied to giving consumers what they want. Joe Brown, of Wired, noted that Americans proclaim in one breath that they want to be green and in the next that they won’t temper their legendary love affair with their cars and the highways.

“If the American public wanted cars that have five wheels, they would produce that as well,” said Ken Bensinger, automotive writer for the Los Angeles Times. Speaking of a recent press dinner with California auto industry executives, Bensinger said, “Several times through the night, they said, ‘You might not think we get it, but we do. We get this whole green thing.’ It’s ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much.’ I don’t think they get it. Their job is to sell cars.”

It can take a while to reflect new consumer attitudes. This year’s cars, after all, were designed back when gas cost $1.50 a gallon, the reporters pointed out, so changes can’t come about fast enough.

Also, it’s not that automakers cared solely about profits and not about the environment. Justin Hyde, the Washington, D.C., reporter for the Detroit Free Press, said in an e-mail interview, “Whether the industry has dragged its feet on fuel efficiency has been the center of the fuel economy debate for decades. You can easily find the arguments from both sides, and I can’t offer an overarching verdict.”

The Detroit News‘s Terlep, in her January 9 article, is less equivocal: “For decades, the Big Three fought environmental legislation and used their political muscle to block attempts to raise fuel economy standards,” she wrote. But the industry’s “political clout declined along with their business.”

Along with Toyota, Honda long has been a champion of fuel efficiency and has been burnishing its environmental image. Hyde pointed out, for instance, that Honda makes no traditional pickup trucks or V8 engines. “On the other side, Detroit executives have long maintained that consumers wouldn’t pay for fuel economy increases, and until gas prices passed $2 a gallon, they had a lot of evidence to support that view. The trouble for Detroit is that demand changes quickly. At $3 a gallon, fuel economy moves up the list of selling points.”

For now at least, the public’s new interest in fuel economy is being accepted as a given when it comes to car shopping. Brown said he expects this year’s January 19-26 Detroit auto show will reflect those consumer preferences.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Toyota saying in Detroit: every single car you buy will have a hybrid option,” he said. “GM knows that the eco-jig is up. There’s no more denying it. People are not interested in large cars.”

Car makers – no black hats

Many think it’s anachronistic and unfair to portray modern automakers as the proverbial “black hats,” although there’s broad recognition domestic manufacturers in particular have come late to the green party.

“Everybody cares about the environment,” said Brown, who then evoked a Doctor Seuss book. “There is no Lorax. And there’s no Sneed Industry that wants to ruin the world. These people aren’t inherently evil. They’re very smart. They have shareholders and bosses … they are out there to provide a product that the market demands. The cardinal rule of that business model is: they are going to be somewhat behind what people want.” He said that automakers “clearly understand that a drastic change is needed.”

Hyde said that more auto executives are talking about climate change now than in years past, “including a few who openly questioned whether climate change was taking place a few years ago. But it’s a business reality now – there’s no way for a global automaker to survive without thinking about those problems.”

“My sense is that they take the whole environmental thing very personally,” said the L.A. Times‘ Bensinger. “I talk to them and it becomes a very emotional issue for them. There is a very intractable attitude among the carmakers. They feel they are doing the right thing. They say if people didn’t want SUVs they wouldn’t buy them.”

Advice for good auto reporting

Car makers and enthusiasts often use jargon and insider descriptions. The science of auto emissions has its own language. Brown, Hyde, and Bensinger agreed that reporters must work hard to describe cars and emissions in plain language. They caution against being afraid to ask what may appear to be a dumb question.

“Jargon is like a fume that fills any room where automotive engineering is going to be discussed,” said Brown, of Wired. “The most important thing you can do with an automotive engineer or publicist is to ask them to explain everything. This challenge is exciting a lot of very brilliant minds for the first time in a long time.”

Bensinger, who came to the auto beat only a few months ago, said that at times he feels he’s in over his head, particularly on alternative car technology. “A lot of it is beyond my capacity to understand,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll try to find someone who’s got an engineering background and run it by them. Sometimes I have to be a journalist and swallow the bitter pill and say, like a dummy, ‘Please explain what that is.’” An eager and large group, auto industry publicists “tend to be extremely enthusiastic about their technology and all too willing to give you the scoop – and very gossipy,” Bensinger added.

Hyde, who has covered the auto industry since 2000, said his advice is “the same I’d give to any journalist – beware of spin, understand the numbers, question yourself as you question others, and keep digging.”

Brown, who assigns and edits features about cars for Wired, said he wants to work with good reporters, not car experts. As an example he cited Eric Hagerman, who wrote the feature in the January issue of Wired, on a contest to design a 100-mpg car. Hagerman knew little about cars before he started hanging out in aspiring winners’ garages where they designed their alternative machines. And Brown – a certified auto mechanic on the side – helped Hagerman to fix his Honda.

A new meaning to competition

Finally, the modern auto beat is less about competition among car makers than it is about an industry forming alliances as public attitudes, the economy, and the regulations change.

For instance, Ford owns one-third of Mazda and both companies produce trucks that look the same, Bensinger noted. General Motors and Toyota for three decades have shared a plant in Fremont, California. Car makers, he said, find external forces such as regulations and oil prices more threatening than even other competing auto makers.

“Toyota is basically an American car maker,” Brown said. “It’s a global economy now.”

Hyde agreed. “The largest automakers are global players that already face tougher carbon controls in foreign markets. The fact that the Detroit automakers joined the U.S. Climate Action Partnership this year shows they see a need to get their voice heard if and when U.S. regulators set an economy-wide carbon control plan.”

A carbon control plan would add yet another layer to the auto beat – and keep these journalists busy writing about climate change for the foreseeable future.

Christine Woodside is a writer and editor based in Deep River, Connecticut. She started her career in 1981 in Philadelphia, first as a news clerk at the Philadelphia Inquirer and then as associate editor...