Obama Vindicated! Or Not…

We noted here Barack Obama’s attack on the American automotive industry, in which he said:

[W]hile our fuel standards haven’t moved from 27.5 miles per gallon in two decades, both China and Japan have surpassed us, with Japanese cars now getting an average of 45 miles to the gallon.

That claim was promptly repudiated by Toyota, which said, “No carmaker gets 45 m.p.g; ours is closer to 30 m.p.g.” Despite what would seem to be a definitive statement from the best possible source, the left has now counterattacked, claiming that Obama’s claim is, after all, true. The kept houseboys at Media Matters have led the charge, denouncing the Chicago columnist who broke the story and the “right wing blogs” who commented on it.
It turns out that Obama didn’t just make up the claim that Japanese cars average 45 mph. That alleged statistic has been kicking around at least since December 2004. That’s when the Pew Center on Global Climate Change–not what I would consider an unimpeachable source–issued a report titled “Comparison Of Passenger Vehicle Fuel Economy and Greenhouse Gas Emission Standards Around the World.” Here is what Media Matters says about the Pew report:

Ambinder cited the Pew Center on Global Climate Change’s December 2004 “Comparison of Passenger Vehicle Fuel Economy and GHG Emission Standards Around the World,” which stated that “[t]he European Union (EU) and Japan have the most stringent standards” on fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions. The report also stated that, according to the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association, the 2002 average fleet fuel economy value in Japan was 46.3 miles per gallon.

You can’t tell from the Media Matters post whether its author bothered to read the Pew report or not. Here is what the Pew report says about gas mileage in Japan, at page 13:

Assuming no change in the vehicle mix, these targets imply a 23 percent improvement in 2010 in gasoline passenger vehicle fuel economy and a 14 percent improvement in diesel fuel economy compared with the 1995 fleet average of 14.6 km/L. According to the Japanese government, this improvement will result in an average fleet fuel economy of Japanese vehicles of 35.5 mpg by 2010. weight classfuel economy Figure 4 Japanese for gasoline passenger vehicles Standards 10-15 mode (km/l)

This chart, from page 12, shows the targets the Japanese have set for 2010 by vehicle weight class:
As you can see, the only size vehicle slated to exceed 45 mpg by 2010 was the sub-1,548 pound class. More about that later.
What’s going on here? Why is the Pew report being cited for a 46.3 mpg average? The answer is that Pew rejiggered the numbers. Pew noted that different countries use different test procedures to measure fuel economy, and it devised a system to normalize those different procedures. The Pew formula says that Japanese mpg numbers are to be multiplied by 1.3. It is this multiplication that generates the 46 mpg figure that apparently has been relied on by Obama and others.
I haven’t had time to research the logic underlying Pew’s conversion, nor do I intend to. The claim that the Japanese automobile fleet had an average fuel efficiency of over 46 mpg as of 2004, or now, is ridiculous. You can see the top ten fuel efficient cars here. The site lists their EPA city and highway fuel efficiency ratings. There are only two vehicles that allegedly get more than 45 mpg, both hybrids (although in fact, the hybrids have been found to do much worse in actual driving conditions than in EPA tests). After those first two hybrids, there is not a single vehicle on the list that gets 45 miles to the gallon. The Honda Civic, a good example of a Japanese economy car, gets 30 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway. The Ford Focus gets 27/34; the tiny MiniCooper gets 32/40. You can see all of the EPA’s 2007 fuel efficiency ratings here; I can find exactly two cars on the list, both hybrids, that purportedly get 45 mpg.
This is why I said that Obama’s comment shows that he lacks common sense. Anyone who pays attention–certainly anyone who contemplates delivering a speech attacking the auto industry–should know that a claim that any country’s vehicle fleet averages 45 miles per gallon is patently false, as any American understands the words “car” and “miles per gallon.”
Of course, you could generate some excellent fuel efficiency data if you included go-karts in the statistics. Let’s return to the chart showing 2010 goals for Japanese vehicles. Note that the weight categories for “vehicles” go all the way down to < 1,548 lbs. Now take as examples two cars that I would consider very small: the Toyota Corolla and the Ford Focus. The Corolla (up to 38 mpg on the highway) weighs around 2,550 pounds. The Focus (37 mpg on the highway) weighs around 2,729 pounds. Both of these sub-compacts would be in the fourth category up from the bottom on the Japanese list. This suggests that the Japanese statistics include quite a few vehicles that we would not classify as “cars.” Whether these are “mini-cars”–death traps by American standards, which wouldn’t be driven on a highway–or motorcycles, I don’t know.
Last month, Alex Taylor, Senior Editor of Fortune magazine, wrote:

Cars average 36 mpg in Europe and 31 mpg in Japan vs. only 21 mpg in the United States.

From everything I’ve seen, that appears to be accurate. It seems that Barack Obama has been caught retailing an urban legend.
UPDATE: Thomas Lifson adds valuable thoughts at the American Thinker.
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