Planet Gore

CAFE Standards: Down the Rabbit Hole

The federal government’s 35-year experiment in mandating fuel efficiency — the so-called Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standard (CAFE) — has been a disaster. It eliminated thousands of Detroit jobs by eliminating big sedans prized by the public (until manufacturers found a loophole for the resurrection of big cars as SUVs), killed thousands of Americans by downsizing cars, forced automakers to divert millions of lobbying dollars to Washington, and didn’t prevent America from becoming more dependent on foreign oil.

So Washington is remaking the standards. And this time, they say, they’ve got it right. Sure.

The new mandate — forcing a 100 percent increase in mpg standards to 56 mpg by 2025 — is even more absurd that the original 1975 CAFE standard that hiked fuel economy by 40 percent. While the EPA’s diktat has come under assault — not just from Congressional Republicans, who rightly point out it is an end run around Congress’ Constitutional authority to draft laws, and from automakers, but even from Big Labor — the Obama administration’s allies in the media and the environmental movement are fighting back.

In a Sunday A1 story, the Detroit Free Press, government stooge and the Detroit’s Three’s biggest hometown paper, tried to paint the automakers as scaremongers misleading the public about the government’s plan to bring them “better” cars.

“In 2007, legislators overhauled (CAFE) and made fundamental changes,” writes Freep reporter Aaron Kessler explaining the unexplainable. “The result is that automakers don’t have to balance sales of SUVs with poor fuel efficiency and subcompacts that get better mileage to meet CAFE targets. If the SUV meets the fuel standard for its own footprint, the automaker can sell all it wants.”

An SUV that gets 56 mpg? Like the Queen of Hearts, Kessler hopes his readers are practicing to believe impossible things.

“There are other aspects that might surprise consumers. The CAFE number a vehicle scores is not the same as the window sticker consumers see on the lot,” continues Kessler, now thoroughly drunk on kool-aid. “So a 56 mpg target means window values in 2025 will be closer to 35 to 40 mpg. Quite a difference. Air-conditioning is also important, and another reason that getting to 56 mpg by 2025 isn’t as daunting as it first seems. Because air-conditioning fluids can be pollutants, the government gives generous credits for using cleaner systems. Just with those credits alone, a 56 mpg CAFE target becomes 50 mpg. The CAFE program also uses what it calls a ‘harmonic average.’ That means small improvements in the worst performers can make a bigger difference than large increases in already-efficient vehicles.”

“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice.

The Looking Glass world that the Freep describes is why automakers spend millions on Washington lobbyists who chase EPA rabbits down holes and attend tea parties that turn 56 mpg into 35 mpg and create odd animals like the “Harmonic Average.” The EPA uses numbers in the way Humpty Dumpty uses words, choosing to make them “mean so many different things.”

But how did the government arrive at the arbitrary 56 mpg? “The Consumer Federation of America endorsed the 56 mpg target after its extensive surveys found U.S. consumers wanted more fuel-efficient cars,” explains the Freep. The reporter might have pointed out that automakers do their own extensive surveys of customers that find the exact opposite. But in the Obamaconomy, government activists now tell manufacturers what their customers want.

“Fifty-six miles per gallon is really a mandate for electric vehicles,” Gloria Bergquist of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers tells the Freep. “It’s a significant increase that no matter which yardstick you use, achieving those gains won’t be possible without electrification in a big way.”

Silly automakers. The Freep quickly rebuts the auto expert with left-wing Union of Concerned Scientists activist David Friedman, who explains “improvements on conventional gas and diesel engines, as well as more and new hybrids” will indeed get us there.

In the end, the paper and its concerned scientists give no reason — other than doing the morally correct thing for the planet — why America’s auto fleet should be determined by government bureaucrats.

“Government standards for fuel economy have barely changed in 30 years,” says the Freep, in apparent justification. “The government’s CAFE standards remained essentially frozen for years, as political maneuvering by Congress blocked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from raising them.”

Wrong. The reason CAFE hasn’t changed in 30 years is because Jimmy Carter left office, America climbed out of the rabbit hole, and Republican presidents (and one triangulating Clinton) let consumer markets work.

But now the ’70s — and the belief in impossible things — are back in fashion. Welcome to Wonderland.


editors note: This piece has been amended since its initial publication to correct an error concerning the credentials of David Friedman.


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