- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2001

A vehicle that gets good gas mileage is a good thing to some people. Others value power or capability more than they do fuel efficiency. They are willing to sacrifice a little (even a lot) of mpgs in return for a larger, safer, more capable vehicle. There is nothing wrong with either view it's a matter of personal priorities.

Yet there are those in Congress and elsewhere who are determined to foist their view of how vehicles should be designed on everyone else. Because they value fuel economy uber alles, they want to force the automakers to build vehicles that emphasize good gas mileage even if it means a reduction in vehicle size (and hence safety), and smaller, less powerful engines that cannot deliver the capability and performance many motorists value. They also don't mind forcing the automakers to add expensive technology to eke out the last mpg from a vehicle even though these costs are transferred directly to consumers.

On Monday, for example, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel said the auto industry has the technology to improve fuel efficiency especially the fuel efficiency of pick-up trucks and sport-utility vehicles dramatically. But this is not news; almost anything can be achieved provided money is no object. In the case of the possible fuel economy gains cited by the NAS panel, the costs would not be insignificant. To improve the fuel efficiency of a large pick-up truck such as a Ford F-150 or Chevy Silverado by 47 percent, the estimated cost would be $1,466 per vehicle. The NAS panel says the money would be recouped over the "14-year life" of the vehicle but few people keep a vehicle that long. Five to eight years is more like it. For SUV and pick-up truck owners, the issue is not insignificant, either. A truck or SUV that can't handle a load or tow a boat without straining is pretty useless irrespective of how miserly it may be at the pump.

When government interferes in the marketplace, it distorts the market often to the great detriment of consumers. For example, the worst side-effect of government-mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements was the "downsizing" (or reduction in size and mass) of the average passenger car which has lost about 1,000 lbs. as compared with the vehicles of the pre-CAFE era. These smaller and less-safe cars have contributed to an estimated 2,000 fatalities annually that would otherwise not have occurred had the occupants of those downsized vehicles been riding in larger, heavier cars.

It all comes down to who should be be making the choice consumers, or the government. Uncle Sam doesn't interfere with people who don't mind paying extra to get a top-of-the-line computer, even though they may not "need" all that extra RAM in the view of someone else. So why should government busybodies such as Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey, who is pushing legislation that would require the automakers to cut SUV gas consumption by 5 billion gallons over a five-year period be dictating to consumers how many mpgs their vehicles ought to deliver? The principle is no different.

Certainly, good gas mileage is important. But it's not the most important thing, and government should not be in the business of telling people that it is. Mr. Markey and others should worry about what's in their own garages and leave everyone alone.

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