Cafe = Completely Absurd Fuel Economy Standards

Michael Giberson

As the price of a product goes up, so does the propensity of politicians to want to do something. Gasoline prices are up, and here come the politicians. The Senate Energy Committee has announced it will be holding hearings in September. And now comes the Bush administration with a proposal to revise and enhance fuel economy standards for “SUVs, Pick-ups, and Mini-Vans.” Yes, that Bush administration, the one that opposed changes to CAFE standards in the monstrous energy bill signed into law just a few weeks ago.

The Washington Post report on the proposal is sub-titled, “Critics Call Bush’s Plan Inadequate.” Let me join the critics.

According to the above-linked U.S. Department of Transportation press release:

This plan is good news for American consumers because it will ensure the vehicles they buy get more miles to the gallon, requiring fewer stops at the gas station, and ultimately saving them money at the pump, Secretary Mineta said.

Of course, American consumers can already purchase vehicles that “get more miles to the gallon, requiring fewer stops at the gas station, and ultimately saving them money at the pump,” and I suspect recent price increases are increasingly leading consumers to make such selections. If gasoline prices stay high, the proposal will be easy for manufacturers of SUVs, pickup trucks, and minivans to meet, largely because it will be irrelevant. If gasoline prices drop back to more typical levels, then manufacturers will have to become creative. In any case, the effects of CAFE on overall fuel consumption are likely to be miniscule.

However, just because the effects on fuel consumption are likely to be small, doesn’t mean that CAFE standards have no effects. Think “unintended consequences.”

I am amused that social critics of “gas-guzzling SUVs and minivans” are so often supporters of CAFE standards, since it seems to me that CAFE standards drove auto manufacturers to produce such vehicles in the first place. Is it any suprise that Chrysler Corporation developed the minivan in the early 1980s? As gasoline prices declined from their 1979/1980 highs, consumers were buying bigger cars again. Good news for Chrysler, but for the CAFE standards which began to be a serious constraint for the company.

Offering minivans (regulated under the lower ‘light truck’ standard) moved consumers out of the largest station wagons (regulated as ‘passenger vehicles’). Since the minivans often got better mileage than other light trucks, the shift improved Chrysler’s corporate average for both categories of vehicle. Other manufacturers were not so constrained by CAFE standards, but soon they too phased out full-size station wagons and introduced minivans.

You won’t get many single consumers buying minivans, and some people resist minivans as un-stylish. (Not me, by the way, I drive a 1995 Honda Odyssey. Quite stylish in my view.) Fortunately, SUVs, too, provided manufactures a way to shift consumers out of the passenger car category into the light truck category. Perhaps not the intention of CAFE standards, but there you have it.

Of course the proposed new-and-improved CAFE standards for light trucks are intended to fix some of this incentive for category shifting. Now we are going to have six different categories for light trucks, each with its own CAFE standard. Sure there may be some ‘bracket creep’, as the Post article mentions, but I’m sure that any problems can be fixed by the next new new-and-improved CAFE standard. It will probably have twelve different categories….

I will lead it to readers more qualified than I to comment on whether this is evidence for or against a “Smithian” Bush.

(In the way of a disclaimer and warning to the reader, please note that some of the above conclusions of mine are purely speculation. I have done only the slightest amount of library digging in an effort to support these conclusions, and that digging was done some time ago.)


21 thoughts on “Cafe = Completely Absurd Fuel Economy Standards

  1. Catching my eye: morning A through Z

    Here’s what’s caught my eye this morning:

    Looks like the MuNu server is down for the count.
    Coming Anarchy has a handy graphical breakdown of German politics. Elections there are coming up soon and it looks like a change is gonna come…

  2. Catching my eye: morning A through Z

    Here’s what’s caught my eye this morning:

    Looks like the MuNu server is down for the count.
    Coming Anarchy has a handy graphical breakdown of German politics. Elections there are coming up soon and it looks like a change is gonna come…

  3. There is no doubt that the SUV craze is in part a result of CAFE standards. Americans are large people. They have large families. They need large vehicles.

    The US auto industry used to make large cars, the kind of car that could easily fit 6 to nine people in comfort (in pre-seatbelt, pre-airbag days). Cafe standards outlawed those cars. But the demand was still there.

    I drive an SUV, a Chevy Blazer. I like the fact that it is very similar to a classic American car: full frame, 6 passenger seating (with a bench seat in front!), big engine (not a V8, unfortunately, but as powerful as one), rugged suspension, rear wheel drive. If GM made a car like that anymore, I would buy it. But because of CAFE, they don’t, and I can’t. So I drive a truck, essentially.

    The gas mileage is adequate. 21 on the highway, if I can keep the speed down to 60 mph.

    I agree that gas prices are going to do more to make people conserve than CAFE standards will. Mysteriously though, $3 a gallon gas has not caused many of my fellow Chicago drivers to slow down. Cars get much better gas mileage at 55 to 60 than they do at 75 to 80 mph!

    BTW, in my experience minivans get excellent gas mileage. I’d have to imagine that an Odyssey gets 29 or 30 on the highway. My V6 Venture gets 26 to 27 on the highway, even with 4 people in it.

    I need a bumper sticker “Get off my ass, I’m saving gas!”

  4. Funny, I just made what amounts to the exact same argument in a comment elsewhere.  The administration wants to be seen as having Done Something, but doesn’t want it to actually constrain people’s freedom of action by holding their fuel consumption down.  Ergo, we get regulations deliberately written to be ineffectual (and thus inoffensive), while oil prices do the work.

    What I’ve noticed popping up in comments at The Ergosphere is people promoting this year’s equivalent of the 200 MPG carburetor.  Both the Singh cylinder head and the Smokey Yunick hot vapor engine have come up lately.  If these ideas worked, they’d be worth untold billions to automakers the world over… but neither is in production, or even announced.  Yet the advocates of these things never stop to ask themselves why?

    Too many folks failed critical thinking, but got an A+ in Conspiracy Theorizing 101.

  5. If I could say a word in defense of the CAFE standards…

    Well, not really. If energy efficiency is the goal, price signals are needed to reach it, and taxation rather than regulation is therefore the appropriate policy tool. I just wanted to point out that for families with more than a couple of children minivans have big advantages over the old station wagons and would probably have mostly supplanted them CAFE standards or no. They have more interior room, more head room, easier access. I know a number of people who have them, and none of them would trade theirs for a station wagon.

    On a related subject, that DOT press release: have you ever noticed the stylized language of these things? How many press releases from government agencies and Congressional office have you seen that refer to some development as “good news” for whomever, when in reality people are perfectly competent to recognize genuinely good news when they see it, without the coaxing? I am thinking of making a list of words, phrases and formulations routine in government and legal-speak that no one ever uses is normal conversation. I don’t mean acronyms or Latin phrases but words like “categorically,” “unequivocally,” and “mainstream.” The “good news” formulation is another one.

  6. The development of the minivan had very little to do with fuel efficiency. Chrysler needed a product that was different enough from all other vehicles to stand out to the consumer. The minivan was basically a “bet the company” development. If it had failed, it is likely that Chrysler would have dissolved. The features that one of the previous commenters noted made the biggest difference to consumers. Even though the classification of the minivan as a light truck may have made development somewhat less costly, I’m sure it was a minor factor in the minivan’s development. It was certainly possible to have tweaked up the minivan’s mpg, but the difference between station wagons and the minivan in mpg was relatively minor.

  7. Well, the problem is excaberated by two factors that the Feds do not acknowlege that they are the authors of.
    1) increased safety standards. This means increased weight. More weight to drag around means more power used to accomplish the same tasks.
    2) increased emmissions requirements
    Go read the latest automotive literature and they openly admit to shifting to something called the “Akins cycle”
    three differences between that and what they had been using
    a) reduced emmissions
    b) reduced power
    c) reduced efficiency
    this means more fuel to accomplish the same work. Only thing is, that we no longer need to perform the same work to accomplish the same task, but more work to accomplish the same task.
    (less power)*(less efficiency)*(more load)*(more fuel burned)=previous task
    Add the room required for child safety seats and the mandated airbags, crash bars, injury mitigating interiors and the average American Family needs a rather large vehicle.
    The ’88 Regal at ~2800lb and 28MPG city evolved into the ’98 Regal at 3700lb at 18MPG city.
    It is even worse today.
    similar interior room and cargo capacity
    changed to meet higher Gov standards means worse mileage
    Q.E.D.
    That does not mean that the increased safety standards or increased emmissions are not justified, just that they *must* be admitted as part of the problem as in making the previous problem worse.

  8. Well, the problem is excaberated by two factors that the Feds do not acknowlege that they are the authors of.
    1) increased safety standards. This means increased weight. More weight to drag around means more power used to accomplish the same tasks.
    2) increased emmissions requirements
    Go read the latest automotive literature and they openly admit to shifting to something called the “Akins cycle”
    three differences between that and what they had been using
    a) reduced emmissions
    b) reduced power
    c) reduced efficiency
    this means more fuel to accomplish the same work. Only thing is, that we no longer need to perform the same work to accomplish the same task, but more work to accomplish the same task.
    (less power)*(less efficiency)*(more load)*(more fuel burned)=previous task
    Add the room required for child safety seats and the mandated airbags, crash bars, injury mitigating interiors and the average American Family needs a rather large vehicle.
    The ’88 Regal at ~2800lb and 28MPG city evolved into the ’98 Regal at 3700lb at 18MPG city.
    It is even worse today.
    similar interior room and cargo capacity
    changed to meet higher Gov standards means worse mileage
    Q.E.D.
    That does not mean that the increased safety standards or increased emmissions are not justified, just that they *must* be admitted as part of the problem as in making the previous problem worse.

  9. Well, the problem is excaberated by two factors that the Feds do not acknowlege that they are the authors of.
    1) increased safety standards. This means increased weight. More weight to drag around means more power used to accomplish the same tasks.
    2) increased emmissions requirements
    Go read the latest automotive literature and they openly admit to shifting to something called the “Akins cycle”
    three differences between that and what they had been using
    a) reduced emmissions
    b) reduced power
    c) reduced efficiency
    this means more fuel to accomplish the same work. Only thing is, that we no longer need to perform the same work to accomplish the same task, but more work to accomplish the same task.
    (less power)*(less efficiency)*(more load)*(more fuel burned)=previous task
    Add the room required for child safety seats and the mandated airbags, crash bars, injury mitigating interiors and the average American Family needs a rather large vehicle.
    The ’88 Regal at ~2800lb and 28MPG city evolved into the ’98 Regal at 3700lb at 18MPG city.
    It is even worse today.
    similar interior room and cargo capacity
    changed to meet higher Gov standards means worse mileage
    Q.E.D.
    That does not mean that the increased safety standards or increased emmissions are not justified, just that they *must* be admitted as part of the problem as in making the previous problem worse.

  10. Well, the problem is excaberated by two factors that the Feds do not acknowlege that they are the authors of.
    1) increased safety standards. This means increased weight. More weight to drag around means more power used to accomplish the same tasks.
    2) increased emmissions requirements
    Go read the latest automotive literature and they openly admit to shifting to something called the “Akins cycle”
    three differences between that and what they had been using
    a) reduced emmissions
    b) reduced power
    c) reduced efficiency
    this means more fuel to accomplish the same work. Only thing is, that we no longer need to perform the same work to accomplish the same task, but more work to accomplish the same task.
    (less power)*(less efficiency)*(more load)*(more fuel burned)=previous task
    Add the room required for child safety seats and the mandated airbags, crash bars, injury mitigating interiors and the average American Family needs a rather large vehicle.
    The ’88 Regal at ~2800lb and 28MPG city evolved into the ’98 Regal at 3700lb at 18MPG city.
    It is even worse today.
    similar interior room and cargo capacity
    changed to meet higher Gov standards means worse mileage
    Q.E.D.
    That does not mean that the increased safety standards or increased emmissions are not justified, just that they *must* be admitted as part of the problem as in making the previous problem worse.

  11. Jhn’1:  You are wrong about the Atkinson cycle engine.  It uses a greater expansion ratio than its compression ratio, and sacrifices volumetric efficiency (the ratio of charge induction to cylinder displacement) to achieve higher thermal efficiency.

    The Prius achieves its high economy in part due to use of the Atkinson cycle.  Link.

  12. Jhn’1:  You are wrong about the Atkinson cycle engine.  It uses a greater expansion ratio than its compression ratio, and sacrifices volumetric efficiency (the ratio of charge induction to cylinder displacement) to achieve higher thermal efficiency.

    The Prius achieves its high economy in part due to use of the Atkinson cycle.  Link.

  13. At the Chicago Auto Show this last Feb, the Mitsubishi, Ford, GM, and Mercedes openly apologized for the changes crippling the previous fuel economy. The pronunciation of all 4 (and the sign at the Ford hybrid) was Akin and the specific claim was that the cycle reduced power and efficiency, but allowed them to keep selling cars (implied that without it the EPA wouldn’t let them sell the product to US)

  14. At the Chicago Auto Show this last Feb, the Mitsubishi, Ford, GM, and Mercedes openly apologized for the changes crippling the previous fuel economy. The pronunciation of all 4 (and the sign at the Ford hybrid) was Akin and the specific claim was that the cycle reduced power and efficiency, but allowed them to keep selling cars (implied that without it the EPA wouldn’t let them sell the product to US)

  15. At the Chicago Auto Show this last Feb, the Mitsubishi, Ford, GM, and Mercedes openly apologized for the changes crippling the previous fuel economy. The pronunciation of all 4 (and the sign at the Ford hybrid) was Akin and the specific claim was that the cycle reduced power and efficiency, but allowed them to keep selling cars (implied that without it the EPA wouldn’t let them sell the product to US)

  16. At the Chicago Auto Show this last Feb, the Mitsubishi, Ford, GM, and Mercedes openly apologized for the changes crippling the previous fuel economy. The pronunciation of all 4 (and the sign at the Ford hybrid) was Akin and the specific claim was that the cycle reduced power and efficiency, but allowed them to keep selling cars (implied that without it the EPA wouldn’t let them sell the product to US)

  17. You’re taking everything a PR flack writes as gospel?

    You can prove to yourself that at least part of that (“Akin” or “Atkins”) is wrong with a simple Google search.  Given the gross errors there, you are way too credulous if you fail to question the rest.

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