Fuel efficiency matters - but is it the only thing that matters?
By Eric Peters
Would you like your next new car or truck to get 35 mpg?
That’s the bait being put before the public as Congress weighs ratcheting up federal fuel economy requirements (known as CAFE) for new vehicles to an average of 35 mpg across the board.
The hook, though, is going to be much less pleasant, and will result in automakers diverting the money they’re spending on new and alternative technologies to focusing solely on outdated CAFE standards.
To begin with, there’s no free lunch when it comes to engineering. Congress can’t just wave a wand and transform a 28 mpg car into a 35 mpg car (much less transform a 20 mpg truck into a 35 mpg truck). To get to 35 mpg, any of several things would have to happen.
Automakers could make the cars lighter, but the Catch-22 is that lighter materials are typically more expensive and would require additional (expensive) safety features like extra airbags.
How does it help the consumer if the “up-front” cost of his 35 mpg car is so high that it negates the “over the road” fuel savings achieved?
Automakers could also make the cars smaller and less-powerful, but the Catch-22: this approach hasn’t worked in the past because the auto industry has offered very fuel efficient vehicles for decades, but some buyers simply prefer, or need, a larger vehicle to carry their families or do their jobs.
Why should Washington be second-guessing (and pre-empting) the buying needs and choices of the driving public?
Neither of these solutions would in the long run save us money - or fuel. And even worse, it would take energy, funding and time away from finding actual long-term solutions to our fuel problems.
We cannot rely solely on changing CAFE standards to fix the fuel problem. Nationally and individually, average fuel consumption is going up, not down - notwithstanding nearly a quarter-century of ever-rising federal fuel economy standards. The number of miles the average American drives each year has increased dramatically from about 10,000 miles annually in the ‘70s when CAFE mandates first went into affect to approximately 12,000-15,000 miles annually today, while not lowering energy consumption in the meantime.
The costs aren’t so negligible. The federal government concedes that the Senate’s (already-passed) version of the CAFE bill, which would impose an across-the-board 35 mpg standard on all new vehicles, costing the US auto industry an additional $110 billion in research, manufacturing, production and related compliance costs - all in addition to the $1,500 per car in health care, pension and other so-called “legacy” costs already crippling U.S. automakers.
But even more importantly in this debate, that $110 billion would take away from the $17 billion that the automakers are spending on R&D to develop new technologies that will actually solve these problems for the long run. This could be devastating to the millions of Americans employed by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler whose jobs may evaporate in the wake of a government-imposed kneecapping of the already-reeling American automobile industry.
Detroit - and American consumers - simply can’t afford that.
Thankfully, not everyone in Congress is on autopilot and oblivious to the threat to consumers and the American economy posed by the Senate bill.
A House version of the CAFE legislation (HR 2927) sponsored by Reps. Barron Hill of Indiana and Lee Terry of Nebraska, acknowledges economic, engineering and practical realities, representing a more balanced approach that looks beyond just CAFE mandates and recognizes the importance of encouraging efficiency while moving forward in developing alternative energy vehicles.
HR 2927 would continue the current practice of separating CAFE standards for passenger cars and light trucks, based on sound reasoning that 35 mpg passenger cars is one thing but producing a 35 mpg truck or SUV without incurring massive expense or crippling capability is something else entirely.
HR 2927 recognizes that 35 mpg vehicles won’t do us much good if they’re too expensive to buy - and if they’re still being filled with just foreign oil.
Here’s to hoping common sense trumps fuel efficiency uber alles.
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