The Obama administration’s latest answer in search of a question is its regulation to raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy to 54.5 mpg by 2025.
Forbes.com’s Jim Gorzelany notes that “major automakers recently signed off ” on the 54.5-mpg standard. Which perhaps proves Karl Marx’s (misquoted) claim that capitalists will sell you the rope with which to hang them. Given the performance the past few years of Government Motors and Fiat’s U.S. subsidiary, I have difficulty giving GM and Chrysler much credibility in telling American car-owners what they want.
CAFE dates back to 1975, the federal government’s knee-jerk response to the first energy crisis of 1973–74. I remember this because when my family looked at cars in the summer of 1975, each new car had, for the first time, its estimated fuel economy. The 1975 Chevrolet Caprice we purchased was rated at 13 mpg in the city and 18 mpg on the highway.
I love this section from Wikipedia about CAFE that demonstrates how government is unable to figure out priorities:
US Congress specifies that CAFE standards must be set at the “maximum feasible level” given consideration for:
- technological feasibility;
- economic practicality;
- effect of other standards on fuel economy;
- need of the nation to conserve energy.
Priorities 1 and 2 are at cross purposes until technology advances from “bleeding edge” to “leading edge.” Those “other standards” are principally safety standards, which too many people think of as seat belts, air bags, side door beams and the like, and too few think of as how the car is able to perform, under the hood and through the tires and suspension. And you’ll notice that none of those four standards includes two words: “consumer demand.”
The CAFE standards require that an automaker have a fleet average — the average fuel economy of all the vehicles it sells — of 25 mpg for the 2011 model year and, by 2025, 54.5 mpg. Which requires some math to explain. Let’s say a carmaker sells five vehicles — four get 60 mpg, and its pickup truck gets 20 mpg. (In other words, 80 percent of the automaker’s vehicles get 60 mpg, and 20 percent get 20 mpg.) The automaker’s fleet average is 52 mpg. And by the Obama standards, the automaker will not make that 54.5-mpg standard.
Here is the complete list of vehicles whose mpg ratings allow them by themselves to meet the 2025 standard:
- 2011 Nissan Leaf (an electric car), 106 mpg city, 92 mpg highway, 99 combined mpg.
- 2011 smart fortwo (also electric) convertible or coupe, 94 mpg city, 79 mpg highway, 87 combined mpg.
That’s it. Of course, even for fuel mileage-minded consumers, that’s only one part of the equation. The more important part is: Will the car meet my vehicular needs? And the answer for most drivers will be: Have you lost your mind?
The Obama administration is misguided in too many areas to count, but this is certainly one of them: that American car owners look for fuel economy first and foremost in their vehicle purchases. (That’s when Americans are able to buy new cars, which excludes, well, any year since 2008.)
Consider this family — two adults (one of whom works out of town) and three children who, based on the height of their parents, will be taller than the national average as they near adulthood. Nissan claims for your $35,500 the Leaf seats five, but the mere presence of three sets of seat belts in the back seat is no assurance that the three sentenced to the back seat will go more than one mile without complaining about their lack of space. And the presence of only five seats means that their friends or other family will have to find other transportation if they’re ever going to the same place we are.
And there are a lot of things we don’t do that other families do — namely, pulling large loads such as campers, boats or similarly heavy trailers. Trailering requires torque, and small engines can be tuned for horsepower, but not usually torque. Living in a small town, the alleged 106-mpg city capacity won’t be used that much; its road performance — which includes but is primarily gas mileage, unless you like the idea of becoming someone’s hood ornament on U.S. 41 or U.S. 151 — is at least as important.
Nissan’s claims about the Leaf’s electric capabilities deserve skepticism as well. Up here near the Arctic Circle, the below-zero temperatures during our marathon winters suck energy out of batteries. Many homeowners also require more vehicles than garage space. Nissan’s alternative is to keep the car plugged in when not in use, which means (as owners of vehicles with engine block heaters know) you’ll be paying for your Leaf twice a month — once when your car payment is due, and once when your electric bill is due.
(You may think I’m picking on the Leaf. And I am, but the Leaf is as of today the only car that can seat more than two and meet the 54.5-mpg standard.)
Gorzelany runs down the list of ways he claims the automakers will meet the 54.5-mpg standard using technology being used today:
But while environmentalists and futurists lay high hopes on plug-in cars, analysts agree the conventional internal-combustion engine will remain the primary source of propulsion for vehicles in the U.S. for some time to come. “Gasoline engines will still power 80 to 90 percent of vehicles all the way through 2025,” predicts George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Group, a Tustin, California-based automotive research firm.
Automakers will thus have to dig deep into their engineering bags of tricks to make tomorrow’s cars and trucks more fuel efficient without the wholesale downsizing and de-powering that rocked the industry in the 1980s. Unfortunately, leveraging the full range of fuel economy-boosting technology will come at an added cost, which the Obama administration figures could amount to as much as $3,500 per vehicle. …
As it turns out the solutions don’t necessarily require a reinvention of the wheel, so to speak. … [A] look at 10 techniques and technologies we predict automakers will be employing in abundance to help boost their corporate average fuel economies to 54.5 mpg by 2025 … range from the easier solutions, like making cars lighter and more aerodynamic, to using more sophisticated engine and transmission technology to wring every last mpg out of a gallon of gas.
The specific list includes weight reduction, better aerodynamics, turbocharging and direct fuel injection, variable cylinder management, automatic stop and start, augmenting gas engines with electric motors, replacing engine-driven accessories (such as power steering) with electric power, regenerative braking (using the car’s stopping power to generate more electricity), more advanced transmissions, and diesel engines (in which the U.S. is woefully behind Europe).
Some of these things seem fine, such as electric-powered accessories. Turbocharging is fine too except that turbocharging is not normally associated with long engine life. Given the disaster that was GM’s V8–6–4 engine, I am not willing to bet that engines whose cylinders turn on and off will work as designed. And the logic of starting and stopping at every stoplight absolutely escapes me. Moreover, automakers can put as much safety equipment as they can conjure up, and that still does not overcome the laws of physics — when big things hit little things, the little things lose.
CAFE standards destroyed the full-size station wagon, and consumers responded by buying sport utility vehicles. What will happen to, for instance, contractors or farmers when CAFE standards end the pickup truck? What will happen to families beyond two children when CAFE standards end the van? (And don’t even bring up sports cars; by 2050 they will be as dead as a car with its lights left on New Year’s night.)
What is most important to the Big Three, and probably their Japanese and European competition, is how to make more money by selling fewer cars. The 54.5-mpg standard, remember, is estimated to add up to $3,500 per vehicle. (And I’m guessing that’s a substantial underestimate.) We car buyers will supposedly get that money back through spending less on gas, which seems like a back-door method for what I believe the Obama administration wants to do but doesn’t dare publicly admit — increase taxes on fossil fuels by at least $1 per gallon to fund whatever stupidity they want to fund. (For instance, pseudo-high-speed rail.) That and the increasing reliability (as of now) of cars means people will buy fewer cars in their lifetimes, which gives carmakers fewer opportunities to sell their products.
The 54.5-mpg standard is the Obama administration’s latest attempt to enforce lifestyle change. If cars are more expensive to purchase and (thanks to their plans to jack up energy costs through taxation) operate, we won’t drive as much. That sticks it to anyone who has to commute from a small town, or travel for their job, doesn’t it? And if vehicles are not capable of transporting more than two people, or are not capable of pulling large loads, people aren’t going to be able to do those activities either. (Does the administration realize how big an industry tourism is in Wisconsin?)
This part of Wisconsin has one veteran member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Tom Petri (R–Fond du Lac), and two rookies, Reid Ribble (R–Kaukauna) and Sean Duffy (R–Ashland). They need to work together with Wisconsin’s new U.S. senator, Ron Johnson, to stop the increased CAFE standards specifically and to end CAFE standards generally. The only people who should decide what kind of cars they want to buy are car-buyers, not the federal government.