The Washington Times - July 8, 2008, 07:02AM

This CAFE doesn’t mean a restaurant

The federal fuel mileage regulations are known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and are written, researched and monitored by NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Many believe that the EPA writes these rules but they don’t. The Dept of Transportation does through its NHTSA office.

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These rules are now being updated after remaining unchanged for thirty years and, of course, there’s lots of lobbying from all sides of the issue. The regulations are somewhat complex, but suffice to say that if a given manufacturer fails to meet the minimum mileage levels (different for passenger cars and truck-based vehicles) they have to pay a fine to the government. This fine is $5.50 for each 1/10th mile-per-gallon less than the minimum, multiplied by the total number of vehicles sold.

Don’t confuse the CAFE fines with the Gas Guzzler tax. The latter is what you pay for certain exceptionally low mileage vehicles. The former is buried in the manufacturer’s window sticker as part of the price of the vehicle. It’s not out of the ordinary for around $700 of the MSRP of your BMW, Mercedes-Benz, etc., to be the CAFE fine that you never knew about. So it goes…

As the CAFE rules for passenger cars rise to the 35 mpg level in a few years manufacturers are rethinking the basics of automotive design to make cars lighter to further extend the benefits of hybrids, diesels, fuel cells or whatever approach is ultimately taken. Weight kills efficiency and there are safe ways to cut weight, boost mileage and cut tailpipe emissions. Size - not weight - is the single determinate for vehicle safety because it’s the length of metal that is deforming between the front of the car and you that makes you safer. Obviously, the way the metal pieces are laid out and assembled has a lot to do with all this, but you get the idea.

A not-so-obvious consideration is the material from which the vehicle is made. Aluminum, for instance, makes a safer car than steel. That is, a properly engineered aluminum Audi A8, for instance, is much safer in a crash than an equally designed steel one. It’s also torsionally stiffer and quieter, which is why Audi builds the cars from aluminum. The metal is considerably more expensive than steel but cost-benefit concerns come in to play in the engineering.

Carbon fiber and other plastics are increasingly being used in vehicles and for good reasons. They are frequently stronger, more easily shaped and have other benefits that make them cost effective. These industries are keeping close ties to the pressures of the marketplace and shifting consumer demands. You should search the internet for studies these industries have made regarding vehicle safety and fuel economy.

It was brought to my attention that, on the last day NHTSA accepted public comment on its proposed fuel economy standards, Saudi King Abdulla said “Consumer countries have to adapt to the prices and mechanisms of the market. We have nothing to do with the current sharp increase in crude oil prices. These countries must reduce their taxes on fuel if they want to ease the burden on ordinary consumers.”

Oh really, Abdulla? That’s a pretty cavalier thing to say for a disgustingly rich guy with a Frank Zappa goatee who lives in a country where the price of a gallon of gas is currently 46-cents! Granted, European countries have always taxed fuel higher, but we only tax gas 18-cents a gallon here.

But I digress. My point is; the sooner we design safe, light, extremely fuel-efficient vehicles and change our lifestyles a little bit, the sooner we can get into a better bargaining position. Different materials, alternative fuels and smarter use of fossil fuels will get us there. What’s really great to think about is that aluminum, carbon fiber, plastics, ethanol, fuel cells and all the other stuff likely to be used by us doesn’t come from the Middle East.