The Public Policy

Fuel Economy at All Costs

Rep. Ed Markey wants you to trade in your farm truck for a pair of oxen.

By 4.3.07

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Rep. Ed Markey thinks your next new car should get 35 mpg, which is a very nice idea -- provided you aren't concerned about the functional compromises and costs that might involve.

Along with Republican co-sponsor Todd Platts, Markey has authored legislation that would push federal fuel economy standards for both passenger cars and pick-ups and SUVs to 35 mpg. Up to now, trucks and SUVs have always been considered separately -- and subject to a less onerous 21.5 mpg "fleet average" (vs. the current 27.5 for passenger cars) on the entirely reasonable notion that it's unreasonable to demand close to 30 mpg from a vehicle that needs to be powerful enough to pull a 9,000-lb. trailer, etc.

Sometimes, a Camry just won't cut it.

Now, however, the screws are to be applied to trucks and SUVs, too. This makes no sense at all -- unless the object of the exercise is punitive -- or the authors of the proposal are massively ignorant about the marketplace and why we have different types of vehicles to suit different needs and functions.

For one, there are already more than half a dozen vehicles available capable of returning around 35 mpg (or even better). Examples include the Honda Civic and Fit, the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa and Chevy Aveo. The idea that the automakers are somehow conspiratorially refusing to provide the market with extremely fuel efficient cars on their own -- without legislative prodding -- is nonsense. And such cars have been available for years -- since at least the mid-1970s.

The thing is, not everyone values fuel economy uber alles. Many buyers need (or want) a larger, more powerful vehicle, and are willing to pay a little (or even a lot) more at the pump for the privilege. Why should Washington meddle? And how does it benefit anyone for legislators to dictate to automakers that they shall design their cars in accordance with what bureaucrats and politicians think is right and proper -- vs. what the buyers are willing to exchange their hard-earned dollars for? If Congress decided to require that McDonald's cease selling Big Macs -- and instead offer only "healthy choices" like chicken pita wraps and bottled water -- does anyone doubt the result?

And here we get to the second point -- about the sheer vengefulness of this proposal.

Some people get furious when they see an SUV or pick-up truck. They consider these vehicles wasteful and vile. It annoys them endlessly that such vehicles are available -- even if they, themselves, are not required to own one and are perfectly free to drive something else. What better way to drive a stake through the heart of these evil machines than by imposing a mandate that will likely render their continued existence impossible?

It's easy enough (in the sense of being technologically and, more importantly, economically feasible) to bump the fuel economy of a car that already gets, say, 29 mpg on the highway to 35 mpg. It's quite another to expect a 10-15 mpg jump from 21.5 mpg to 35 mpg -- at least, without it involving massive expense for the necessary technology (hybrid gas-electric powertrains, etc.) or a significant reduction in capability or size. It takes "x" amount of engine power to pull a trailer (or carry 2,000 pounds of gravel in the bed, etc.). There's no getting around the physics of it. And the larger the vehicle, the heavier it's going to be -- and the more fuel it will necessarily need to burn in order to haul it.

Thus, pick-ups and SUVs will suffer disproportionately. As will American car companies -- which have their main profit centers in large trucks and SUVs, while the import brands make most of their money selling smaller (and thus inherently more economical) passenger cars. So Detroit is about to get another legislative kneecapping -- at a time when American car companies are already in not-so-great condition. Our public-minded geniuses have repeatedly given Japanese automakers a helping hand with legislation that was easier for them to accommodate -- and they're about to do it again. It could mean the straw that breaks the camel's back, this time.

Maybe you don't like SUVs and pick-ups, either. That's okay. And it's your right, as a consumer, to buy something else. Whether, in your judgment (or that of Messrs. Markey and Platts), your neighbor "needs" a big SUV or pick-up is, however, as beside the point as whether you, in his judgment, need the things you happen to prefer in life -- be they $100 haute cuisine dinners or a nice home in the suburbs vs. a walk-up flat in the city.

We're supposed to have the choice; not have Washington choose on our behalf.

Also, many people -- farmers, contractors, those with large families, etc. -- do, in fact, need a vehicle that's larger and more capable than a compact car. They are already paying more in up-front and at-the-pump costs to own such vehicles. What justification can there be -- other than sheer spitefulness or ignorance -- for wanting to squeeze them for more?

The "conservation" argument holds little water; it's a fact that the more efficient vehicles have become, the more Americans drive them. What difference does it make if 25 gallons of fuel are consumed in two hours of driving a 20 mpg SUV vs. four hours of driving a 35 mpg compact "economy" car?

None of the foregoing is rocket science; the crucial facts are well known. It seems, therefore, that what's driving Markey-Platts is mean-spirited demagoguery -- and a callous indifference to the potentially devastating effects this legislation could have on the car industry generally, American car companies particularly -- and individual consumers most of all.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.