Motor vehicle mileage rules: Making matters worse

Published August 1, 2001

Global climate change is in the news again, this time as a reason for enacting stricter motor vehicle fuel economy standards for light-duty trucks, including SUVs, vans, and pickups.

But we should be leery of this claim, especially in light of the substantial cost and safety risk tighter fuel economy standards pose to passengers.

Remember global cooling?

In 1975, when Congress passed the original fuel economy law, climate change was also in the news, but not as a rationale for federal fuel economy controls.

In its April 28, 1975 issue, Newsweek magazine reported that “weather patterns have begun to change dramatically” and that “these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production–with serious political implications for just about every nation on Earth.”

The magazine concluded, “The central fact is that after three-quarters of a century of extraordinarily mild conditions, the Earth’s climate seems to be cooling down.”

Back then, instead of fuel economy regulations, this “news” prompted calls for storing food for use when the cooling shortened growing seasons. One proposal called for melting the ice caps by spreading soot on them to retain the heat of the sun. Concern was expressed that governments would delay too long before taking action to meet the coming crisis.

In his foreword to a book titled The Cooling, by Lowell Ponte, Senator Claiborne Pell (D-Rhode Island) wrote, “This book is as disquieting as Silent Spring in its analysis of environmental hazards. . . .” Author Ponte wrote, “It is a cold fact: The global cooling presents humankind with the most important social, political, and adaptive challenge we have had to deal with for ten thousand years.”

Now it’s global warming

Today we are being warned about global warming. In introducing his legislation to make gasoline mileage regulations (known as CAFE for corporate average fuel economy) tougher, U.S. Representative John W. Olver (D-Massachusetts) said, “This is an essential first step toward improving energy efficiency and slowing global climate change.”

Of course, the climate has always changed and always will. Ice caps have oscillated over much of the Earth’s surface for millions of years, and scientists say we are in an interglacial period–meaning they expect the ice to come again. While there are theories about why these drastic changes have taken place, there is no consensus among scientists about the causes.

Anyone reading the scientific reports today, including those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will see there are also a multitude of uncertainties about what is happening to our climate.

Dr. Richard S. Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a member of the National Academy of Sciences group that issued its climate change report in June, has written that the report “represented the span of views” thereby “making clear that there is no consensus, unanimous or otherwise, about long-term climate trends and what causes them.” Do we really know enough to use climate concerns to justify more severe regulation?

Reducing oil imports

The second most popular reason for promoting tougher CAFE rules is to reduce oil imports. Of course, since CAFE was enacted, oil imports have gone dramatically up, not down. Foreign oil is cheaper, and cheaper oil will always flow into the U.S. market unless blocked from entry by trade barriers. Such barriers, of course, would bounce gasoline and heating oil prices still higher–not a very popular position with the voters. A major reason politicians back CAFE is because it is politically safer to punish the voters indirectly by changing the kinds of vehicles they can buy through fuel economy regulations.

Technology is not enough

Another misleading notion is that, in Rep. Olver’s words, “The technology exists to improve fuel efficiency. . . .” According to his bill’s cosponsor, U.S. Representative Wayne Gilchrest (R-Maryland), “The technology has already been developed to improve fuel efficiency. . . .”

Their statements appear to assume there is some secret reason automakers do not want to offer more fuel-efficient vehicles to their customers. If automakers could offer vehicles with higher fuel economy but with the same size, weight, utility, and cost of today’s vehicles, they would be scrambling to do it.

Unfortunately, the “technology” that has brought about the most mileage improvement in cars and light trucks is the reduction of average size, weight, and utility of these vehicles. This is what happened to the family-size passenger car under CAFE.

When CAFE was enacted, about 70 percent of U.S.-made passenger cars could tow a small boat or trailer weighing up to 2,100 pounds. Americans wanting to take their children, and maybe grandmother and grandfather, to the movies could use a big family-size station wagon. And when young son or daughter started to drive, parents could start them with a full-size car with the weight and structure that could protect them in a crash.

Today, less than 6 percent of passenger cars, which now must average 27.5 miles per gallon, have that towing capacity. To meet fuel economy regulations, manufacturers have had to reduce car size and cut weight by 1,000 pounds, eliminating the full-size station wagon from the market. As a result, cars are less useful and, on average, less safe than they would be if CAFE did not exist.

All other things being equal, it is a simple matter of the laws of physics that smaller cars provide less protection for their occupants. This may be fine for the regulators and politicians, and perhaps the carmakers can adjust to it. But it is certainly not good for the vehicle occupants.

Less utility and safety, higher prices

For many Americans today, the family car is the SUV or minivan. As cars were downsized and de-powered to meet CAFE, consumers joined the move to vans and SUVs and even pickups, which must average 20.5 mpg, to find the utility they wanted. Of course, young single people like to drive these vehicles as well.

The national government’s response to this change in consumer behavior has been to push for higher CAFE standards. But that punishes families and people who need the superior seating capacity, power, and towing ability of light trucks for their businesses.

Nonetheless, Representatives Olver and Gilchrest, and Senators Diane Feinstein (D-California) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who sponsor the same bill in the Senate, want to require light-duty trucks, which include SUVs, vans, and pickups, to meet the same fuel economy standards as passenger cars. And they want to expand coverage to include trucks in the 8,500 to 10,000 pound range, which now are used by vanpool commuters, airport courtesy shuttles, handicapped and elderly transportation services, and more. In effect, this would mean the end of these vehicles.

Yes, progress is being made with fuel economy technology, but there is a substantial price premium to be paid for vehicles that utilize this new technology, a premium consumers have been unwilling to pay. The principal way to reduce fuel consumption remains to reduce vehicle size and weight. To suggest to American consumers that they can have the same vehicle with significantly higher mileage just because a law is passed increases the cynicism of the public about their government.

Diane Steed, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and now president of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, points out that cutting size and weight to meet CAFE standards has increased the number of deaths and injuries on our roadways. She cites a 1999 USA Today analysis that found vehicle downsizing to meet CAFE rules had resulted in 46,000 deaths on American highways–deaths that could have been avoided if those people had been riding in larger, heavier vehicles.

Steed also notes that in 1992, the National Academy of Sciences found the CAFE system “has serious defects that warrant careful examination.” She adds, “So why would anyone think that more of a bad thing would be better?”

A good question for all of us to ask.

James Johnston is a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute and author of Driving America: Your Car, Your Government Your Choice (Washington, DC: AEI Press, 1997).