- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 15, 2002

The government doesn't tell us how high we're allowed to set the thermostat in our homes each winter, so why is it dictating the gas mileage the vehicles we drive ought to get? It's a question the Bush administration should weigh as it considers a proposal by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to increase Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements for pickup trucks, SUVs and minivans.
Under current law, each automaker must meet a "fleet averagefl" of 20.5 miles-per-gallon for these vehicles (the standard is 27.5 mpg for passenger cars) or pay fines which of course are simply transferred to consumers in the form of higher sticker prices.
There are other costs as well. The least expensive way to improve fuel efficiency is to reduce the weight of the vehicle but smaller vehicles are inherently less crashworthy than larger vehicles, all else being equal. This gives new meaning to the catchphrase, "blood for oil." Another cost is diminished capability a particular problem for SUVs and pickups. Smaller, more fuel-efficient engines can't pull the same loads that larger engines can. But most folks purchase SUVs and pickup trucks specifically because they want or need the greater cargo/towing capacity these vehicles deliver. You can have great fuel economy or you can have the ability to pull a boat and carry six people. You can't have both, though, in the same vehicle.
The special-interest groups that have been arguing for an increase in the CAFE requirements for pickups, SUVs and minivans do so on the basis of energy conservation (mainly) and lowering emissions (secondarily), even though an uptick in CAFE would make these vehicles more expensive, perhaps even to the point of rendering them uneconomical for the automakers to continue manufacturing. The special interests say that would never happen, of course that "new technologies" (never specified) will save the day, etc.
But the history of CAFE puts the lie to that claim. In fact, it was the CAFE regulations themselves that inadvertently created the SUV boom by effectively outlawing the V-8, rear-wheel-drive station wagons and large sedans that, prior to the 1980s, served as family transportation for many American families. It was simply no longer economically feasible to build these types of vehicles because of CAFE, so the automakers "downsized" passenger cars, eliminating V-8s and rear-wheel-drive in all but a few high-end models and reducing the weight of the average car by more than 1,000 pounds. The typical passenger car
became and remains a much smaller, lighter vehicle, with front-wheel-drive instead of rear-wheel-drive, and a four- or six-cylinder engine rather than a V-8. However, these smaller vehicles do not meet the needs of many families or of people who prefer the inherent safety advantage (and capability) that a larger vehicle provides. SUVs which share many of the design characteristics of pre-1980s American sedans and station wagons do meet those needs. And because CAFE requirements are less stringent for SUVs and pickups the "loophole" SUV-haters constantly refer to the automakers are still able to produce these vehicles. And SUVs remain massively popular irrespective of the contrary desires of left-wing special interest groups.
So the question is: Should the special interests be allowed (once again) to impose their priorities on the driving public? Fuel efficiency is an important consideration but it's not the only consideration, and not necessarily the most important. Many people are willing to pay a little more at the pump in return for the added room, capability and safety that a larger vehicle such as an SUV provides. Shouldn't that be their choice?
Why should the needs of American car-buyers be trumped by the government's idea of what Americans' needs should be? If the answer is energy conservation, then perhaps no one should be allowed to keep their home any warmer than 60 degrees, either. Yet the public is not endlessly guilt-tripped about the "selfishness" of a nice and toasty home (at least, not yet).
There are several ultra-efficient automobiles on the market that are designed to deliver extremely high fuel economy with power, roominess, performance, etc. taking a back seat. People do have a choice. Let those who value fuel economy uber alles buy those cars and let the rest of the country choose the sorts of vehicles that meet their needs.
Forcing people into smaller, less capable and more costly vehicles to satisfy the government's and special interests' obsession with fuel economy to the exclusion of all other considerations is as bizarre as giving them control over how warm we'll be allowed to keep our homes.
We're paying the bills, not them. It should be up to us to decide.

Eric Peters is the auto columnist for America Online, Netscape and CompuServe.


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