- - Monday, April 29, 2019

America is a nation on wheels. With 328 million prospective drivers eager to go about their business, the challenge is to build cars and trucks that meet a complex array of needs. To balance efficiency with costs, safety and environmental preservation, the Trump administration wants to relax fuel efficiency rules. Despite the inevitable obstacles, it’s an adjustment that could pay off down the road.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration propose easing the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirement for cars and light trucks built during model years 2022 through 2025. The agencies describe the revamped rule, still under review, as “a balance of safety, economics, technology, fuel conservation, and pollution reduction.”

The updated regulation would reduce the miles-per-gallon average that automobile manufacturers are required to achieve for their fleets from 54.5 miles per gallon, the year 2025, to the 43.7 miles per gallon required of cars for the 2020 model year. Light trucks would be required to achieve 31.3 miles per gallon. Softening the fuel-efficiency requirements would reduce the requirement that new cars and trucks replace steel for lighter composite materials.

Without the revision, manufacturers can only improve the fleet average by pushing expensive hybrid and electric vehicles. These models exceeded 240,000 sold in 2018, but they amounted to only a small part of the 17.3 million vehicles sold overall. And not everyone can afford a so-called “zero-emissions vehicle,” which sucks juice from the electric grid primarily powered by natural gas and coal. The average 2018 sticker price, according to Kelley Blue Book, is $67,000.

Avoiding wholesale manufacturing overhauls could lessen higher ownership costs that the highway-safety agency calculates that new-car purchasers would save, an average of $2,340 in technology, financing, insurance and tax costs. With half of American consumers struggling to come up with $500 for an average car repair, the savings could mean a chance to trade in a gas-guzzler for a new fuel-sipping model. Coast to coast, the administration places the reduction in technology costs at $252.6 billion over the lifetime of vehicles through model year 2029.

Saving money is smart, but saving lives is smart and priceless. The government claims its proposal to forgo the necessity of building flimsier vehicles to meet requirements would prevent 12,000 fewer fatalities through 2029. Multitudes of American families would be spared the heartbreak of losing a loved one to highway carnage. This further might save $197.5 billion in costs attributable to fatalities and injuries.

Environmental impact is an important consideration, too, and lower fuel efficiency would mean higher fuel consumption. U.S. cars and trucks would use an additional 500,000 barrels of oil per day under the rule revision. The resulting rise in tailpipe emissions would boost atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations from an estimated 789.11 parts per million to 789.76 and warm the planet by a tiny three-one thousands of a degree Celsius. The Earth would be none the wiser, but those who cling to her green hem are already crying foul.

California, a nation unto itself in size and clout, has set its own strict fuel efficiency regulations and is standing athwart Washington’s effort to relax the rules. California authorities fully embrace the environmentalist agenda, and that includes demanding stringent reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions. Easing the Obama-era gas mileage regulations would strip the state of the power to force automakers to dance to the green tune and market fuel-miser vehicles nationwide for the sake of manufacturing efficiency.

California sued the Trump administration in April to obtain “documents concerning vehicle-fleet composition, new car sales, vehicle safety, battery technology, and other information” the federal agencies have used to justify their proposal to soften future standards. Colorado, an ideological sidekick, has joined the lawsuit, and at least 16 other states are making noises about doing so.

If given a theoretical choice, who wouldn’t swap a fuel-thirsty clunker for a slick, all-electric Tesla? But where the rubber meets the road, gas efficiency and green credentials must be weighed against heavy financial and human costs. That’s where the theoretical meets reality.

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