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New CAFE Rules Will Create Social Engineering--Good.

Posted by: David Kiley on April 22, 2008

A combination of permanently higher oil prices and the CAFE standards announced by the Department of Transportation today—automakers will have to reach higher levels by 2015 on their way to the 35 mpg average they have to reach by 2020—should really start to re-engineer the U.S. auto fleet for the better.

My colleague David Welch calls the target automakers have to hit by 2015 the “Europeanization” of the U.S. auto industry. He’s right. And what Europe did through higher fuel taxes was to re-engineer the auto fleet for the common good—-lower air pollution, especially in the cities. Some people call it social engineering. That has a bad ring to many Americans—like socialized medicine. But it will be a good thing.

What we will see in the coming years will be controversial to many. There will be a bigger trade to smaller vehicles. Ford Expedition owners will trade to Ford Edges and Ford Flexes, or even Mazda6 wagons, all of which get between 30% and 40% better fuel economy than the Expedition. And that’s before, perhaps, some percentage of those vehicles could be offered in plug-in or clean diesel versions. I’m figuring to trade my 6 cylinder BMW wagon by the first quarter of 2009 for a VW four-cylinder clean diesel Jetta. My fuel economy will go up roughly 100%, from the low 20s to the low 40s.

A lot of buyers of full-sized pickups will seriously examine whether they need a Ford F150 or Chevy Silverado. Contractors, plumbers, electricians, will examine whether they can get by with Toyota Tacomas, or even the clean diesel Mahindra pickups that are hitting the U.S. market in 2009. Many who just don’t need all the brawn of the F150 will be compelled to trade, or, perhaps, not be able to get one because Ford will only be able to manufacture a finite number of pickups. That will raise the price of F150s. Ford will get a better price. Truck buyers will grumble. And members of Congress will not have to be blamed for passing a gas tax, as Europe did. The tax will be levied on the vehicle, and charged for by the automakers. And so they will get the blame.

The statistics on how we use our vehicles add up to a study in waste. Eighty-percent of Americans drive fewer than 35 miles a day, and 25% of all trips are under a mile. Between 70% and 80% of Americans drive alone. More than 90% of trips made by SUVs are performing the same duty as a passenger car, but doing it at half or less than half the fuel economy.

Many people buy SUVs and vans for the dozen times a year they may actually need the utility. I’m thinking it’s those people who will be early traders if they can see the wisdom in renting utility vehicles when they really need them instead of owning them and dragging around weight they don’t need.

Many Americans won’t give up their trucks and SUVs for cars easily, though, there is plenty of evidence that they are doing so already as gas prices climb toward $4.00 per gallon. Many will argue that smaller vehicles are not safe. That’s bull.

And those who want to hang on to their SUVs, including auto executives, will rightly point out that the government has to get as tough and nasty on utility companies as thry are on auto companies—imposing cleaner energy and pollution restrictions on that much larger piece of our national carbon footprint—coal plants.

This CAFE measure, as has been pointed out, is an ass-backwards way to change the carbon footprint of our vehicular fleet. But it’s all we’ve got.

One thing that I believe will take place is this. A lot of people who trade in their Trailblazers, Explorers, Expeditions, Sequoias and Armadas for sporty and more fuel efficient passenger cars will ask themselves, “What was I doing driving that behemoth anyway….this is a lot nicer to drive.”

Reader Comments


April 23, 2008 12:18 AM

Money quote: "This CAFE measure, as has been pointed out, is an ass-backwards way to change the carbon footprint of our vehicular fleet. But it’s all we’ve got."

To rely on CAFE to do the heavy lifting is retarded and bound to fail.

I hate the emulate the Europeans, but heavy taxation is the only way to convince Americans to get out of guzzlers and into something more efficient.


April 23, 2008 4:53 PM

I appreciated David Kiley's BW blog from yesterday and mostly agree with its position. If this is our optimum scenario in lieu of the higher gas taxes we truly need, so be it. Let's get on with vehicle development to meet the new regs.

A variable Mr. Kiley didn’t mention is the wave of new small-block V8 and large-V6 diesels and more efficient conventional drivelines in the pipeline. These, I reckon, will keep many current full-size truck owners in the fold despite higher retail prices. But the new diesels’ impact could be moderated or even negated by diesel fuel’s ~$.80/gal. price premium vs. petrol—a factor that also will diminish the potential F.E. gains of trading your 5-Series wagon for a Jetta diesel.

As buyers consider the tradeoffs of downsizing, there’s also the real issue of ergonomics and ingress/egress. I’m 6ft3in. with a 37-in. inseam. I have size-12 feet. My measurements aren’t unusual today, but they clearly put me way outside the 90th percentile of B- and C-class vehicle architectures. I simply don’t fit comfortably in vehicles of this size, and the older I get the less I want to endure low H-points.

Having two kids and three large dogs means my family will keep our V6 Odyssey or something similarly sized as our prime mover. For large folks with lots of stuff to haul on a regular basis, smaller vehicles don’t apply.


April 23, 2008 10:27 PM

Kiley, as a start of this particular rant, 'trading' is a very costly proposition. How on this polluted earth can you justify taking the monumental hit on that yuppie BMV to save a few bucks on fuel with a VW which, if its history in this country is a guide, is a loser in terms of reliability? Yes, and it looks funny. So ha!

Why your Euro-fix? There is an abundance of scrap built there, just as here, and thank goodness we do not get most of it. Nor do they accept ours. What is the matter with a HONDA Accord diesel, for example? Or the diesel Civic? The company has great integrity, something you cannot claim in the case of VW. It is innovative, their clean diesel makes MB look, once again, very much like what it is. A massive gang of engineers well out of control. They thrive on creating complicated messes to pawn off on the fools who buy their cars and SUVs. The commercial trucks are another matter entirely.

And yes CAFE is just another in a very long line of disasters forced on us by our largely leftist elected green-speaking representative in several layers of massively irresponsible government, influential CA leading the way down the terlit with its super-sicko SACTO-based State Air Resources Board of nincompoops. Incompetent, dishonest, ego-rich appointees--which makes them 'untouchables'.


April 23, 2008 10:52 PM

Firewood and charcoal is the worst carbon footprint of all!!! We will install pollution controls in all chimneys and stovepipes all over the world!! Even in the mountains and under the rocks where hermits live...I aint kidding..


April 24, 2008 8:20 PM

Don't know about Gumby's firewood and charcoal footprints, I tend to wear shoes and stay clear of olde ash pits. But that all fires (open and captured) will soon be regulated by our nameless/mindless/armed with weapons and more poser than they can handle appointed authorities is not much of a stretch. First the Environmental Impact Report prior to lighting the trusty Weber to do a few super-costly stakes (thanks knuckle-dragging drooling fans of ethanol). Then there is the matter of catching the sulphur fumes from the match. Later the methane fumes from those dipping into the beans and deviled eggs.

Todays disgusting gnuz here on the Left Coast is that a micro brewer in Weed, CA, a former logging town before they destroyed all the forests with their greed, will be required to change the caps on his bottles. The word Weed appears there, and those out to protect us from ourselves equate this vord with Pot!!!!!!!! What kind of sorry PC crap have the damned left-wing Crats backed us into this time around? Pelosi, Reed, and that rotten gang of spoilers should hang their heads in shame. Better yet, hang their bods in a closet somewhere. Socialism won't even be this much fun folks...

PAULl mcgraw

April 25, 2008 12:17 AM

I liked your article. I have two vehicles. A minivan which barely gets 12 mpg around town and an old Mercedes wagon that gets over 15 mpg around town. The wagon is smaller than the minivan but the mileage, although it's not super, is a 20 percent savings on my gas bill...even if it does use premium. My first three cars were smaller cars. I guess I'll be coming back home, no thanks to $4 a gallon gas. It's not terrible though. In a way it's a nice trip back to my youth because smaller cars are more fun to drive, as I've found out on my old Mercedes. All I could say is bring it on!
Long Island, NY

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