Politics & Policy

Stalling the Engines of Progress

(Carolyn Franks/Dreamstime)
Obama concocts new commercial-trucking standards from thin air.

The week brings two interesting pieces of automotive news: One from Nissan, which knows what it is doing, and one from the Obama administration, which doesn’t.

Since this is National Review rather than Car & Driver, I’ll start with the Obama administration.

The White House has decided that the nation’s commercial trucks are not as fuel-efficient as they should be. Strangely, the people who own the trucks and pay for the fuel out of their own pockets do not share that opinion generally, but their opinions, being grounded in unglamorous reality rather than in political idealism, are given little weight.

Relying on the scientifically illiterate medium of the day, the Associated Press reports that the new standards will cut “carbon pollution” (the agency means “carbon dioxide,” which isn’t the same thing as “carbon”) and — mirabile dictu!“save vehicle owners billions of dollars in fuel costs and conserve tens of billions of gallons of oil.”

Follow the money, they tell them in journalism school. It apparently never occurred to the reporters and editors of the Associated Press, who truly must be as dumb as specimens of a not-very-bright variety of igneous rock, to ask why commercial-trucking operators — who are, after all, in the business of making money rather than frittering it away — had not already taken the step of saving themselves billions of dollars. Did it not occur to them that they like money — billions of dollars! — until Barack Obama, the wise and compassionate light-worker, pointed it out to them? How did they imagine this conversation would go?

President Obama: I demand you save yourselves billions of dollars!

Truckers: Oh, we’d never thought of that! Thanks, and blessings be upon you!

The answer, of course, is that improving fuel efficiency comes at a price. You don’t just throw away your old tractor-trailers and buy new ones: The current, slightly less-fuel-efficient models cost around $200,000 a copy and there are about 2 million of them in service, along with another 13.5 million commercial trucks in other configurations. Brady Dennis of the Washington Post reports that the new fuel-efficiency standards will add about $14,000 to the price of a big rig — or $28 billion, more than a third of the commercial-trucking industry’s annual revenue and many times more than its annual profit.

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The rules require a 25 percent decrease in carbon-dioxide emissions over ten years. Those are nice round figures and familiar proportions, which politicians love (cf. every failed Soviet five-year plan) but human beings should be wary of. Why not 22 percent? Why not 27 percent? Why over ten years rather than eight or eleven years? The answer is that the Obama administration has only a passing interest in any automotive engineering questions, but it has a great interest in public-relations questions, and round numbers and familiar proportions are easier for people to remember and to understand.

Improving fuel efficiency comes at a price. You don’t just throw away your old tractor-trailers and buy new ones.

The usual fools are making the usual promises: that this will save trucking companies money whether they like it or not, that these savings will be passed on to American consumers (as though the costs won’t be passed on, too), that this will create jobs as perfectly usable capital is rendered obsolete not by economic or technological changes but by political fiat, etc. The opposite is more likely to be the case: that the cost of complying with the new mandate will exceed any gains in fuel costs (the fact that the volume of fuel consumed may go down does not mean that fuel expenses will go down — supply and demand and all that), that these higher prices will be passed on to consumers and to businesses with independent truckers taking the first and hardest hit, and that actual fuel consumption and total carbon-dioxide emissions will remain unchanged.

Contra the evidence-free insistence of the Associated Press, the new standards will not necessarily “conserve tens of billons of gallons of oil,” either. Does anybody really think that fuel that is not consumed by U.S. trucking companies will just sit there instead? I happen to know a fellow who operates some tanker trucks, and he assures me with great confidence that his captains know how to get to China, Korea, Brazil, India, and the major European ports.

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Carbon-dioxide emissions may even be increased by Obama’s fiat. The new rules certainly will shorten the working lives of vehicles that cannot economically be brought up to standard, meaning that they will have to be replaced. They will not be replaced by unicorns. Building a truck is a fairly energy-intensive process, and replacing a working vehicle with one that is slightly more fuel-efficient rarely can be justified on emissions grounds — that’s why the greenest vehicle you can buy isn’t a Tesla or a Prius but a used car.

#share#What was Nissan up to this week? The Japanese automotive giant unveiled a new engine that does something nifty, altering its own compression ratio in response to the demands being made on it. Typically, an engine’s compression ratio is fixed, some in a way that maximizes performance, others in a way that maximizes fuel economy. Nissan’s new design doesn’t have to split the difference or compromise between those poles — it can do either as needed. The idea of variable compression ratios isn’t a new one; it’s been around for more than a century. It just took the best and the brightest in the automotive world — who have vast resources, terrific intellectual capital, and enormous financial incentives for productive innovation — roughly the period of time from Teddy Roosevelt’s administration until now to figure it out. Unlike politicians, they do not get to say “Make it so!” and then go play golf. They actually have to figure out how to get it done.

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“Taylorism,” sometimes erroneously known as “scientific management,” was a 19th-century fad that was very popular among progressives and that still has a profound influence on progressive thinking, especially on environmentalist thinking. The free-lunch argument for higher fuel-efficiency standards (that they will magically pay for themselves through fuel-savings) is an example of that, as is the recent, strangely puritanical obsession with food waste. The Taylorist, who, like Karl Marx and our contemporary progressives, envisions society as one big factory, necessarily is captive to a primitive and mechanistic view of social affairs. From that point of view, it is impossible to understand that the most efficient system for producing and distributing food in a way that reflects the actual consumption preferences of real people is also a system that produces a fair amount of waste. This is an ancient intellectual conflict, at least as old as the perfect-circle-and-sphere-loving Aristotelians who could not accept the facts of elliptical planetary orbits and irregular heavenly bodies. They want a neat universe, one that can move and be moved in nice, 25 percent increments over regular, ten-year periods. The real one is chaotic and unpredictable.

The idea that there is a single “right” fuel-efficiency standard for the millions of American commercial trucks on the road, and that we know what the right one for 2027 is today, is preposterous. The simpleminded belief in such universals is a very large part of what’s wrong with the interaction between politics and economy. And the belief that, if there were such a metaphysically true standard, then Barack Obama would be able to discern it? Pure superstition.

Nissan has one way of doing things, and Barack Obama has another. One of them works, and one of them does not.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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