- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2002

What's the true value of "good gas mileage"? Is it the most valuable thing about a new car or truck? How about vehicle size? Or good performance? Or the ability to carry heavy loads, and so on? These are values, too, aren't they? The question is: Should the consumer be the one who determines which values are most important, or should that be the job of politicians, bureaucrats and special-interest groups?
Some believe the government should put fuel economy at the top of the list, and force the automakers to design and build their vehicles accordingly even if that means size, performance and capability must be sacrificed to meet the edict of good gas mileage uber alles. For years, this has been done via the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements. Under CAFE, each automaker's combined fleet of cars and trucks must meet a certain (and arbitrarily chosen) fuel-economy figure. At present, those figures are 27.5 mpg for passenger cars, and 20.5 mpg for light trucks, SUVs and minivans. If the fleet average exceeds either figure, the automaker is punished in the form of gas-guzzler penalties and taxes that drive up the cost of its vehicles.
To satisfy the rules, the automakers have had to do several things that have distorted the new car and truck marketplace. One such measure has been the downsizing of the typical passenger car which, on average, has lost about 1,000 pounds since the 1970s. The automakers have also had to build and offer for sale so-called "loss leader" subcompact models that are not especially profitable.
Of course, the economic costs are transferred to buyers of other models in the form of generally higher sticker prices on the more popular models and the public also pays in other ways. The smaller, lighter vehicles of today are also less safe than they would otherwise be, and such technological improvements as fuel injection and overdrive transmissions have simply encouraged people to drive more rather than less. Also, our dependence on foreign oil is at an all-time high.
So, by every measure, federal fuel-economy requirements have been a massive failure yet the government, tub-thumping politicos and certain interest groups that claim to represent the public continue to insist upon raising CAFE requirements to as high as 40 mpg for passenger cars, and to perhaps 30 mpg for light trucks, SUVs and minivans. But, since 20-plus years of CAFE edicts have done nothing to decrease U.S. fuel consumption, there is no basis for believing that even higher CAFE requirements will change that course. Besides, the government doesn't tell people where to live, or what kinds of homes they ought to live in. People choose what's right and best for them. That's how it ought to be with cars, too.

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