TCS Daily

No More CAFE

By Brock Yates - January 4, 2002 12:00 AM

Should one have sufficient time to waste, a great source of knee-slappers lies in re-reading the predictions issued by media gurus for the year just past. Most were hilariously inaccurate, and included not a single word about terrorist attacks to be organized in the desolate reaches of Afghanistan by Muslim crackpots, California blackouts or the Enron collapse.

That said, we who are paid to pontificate operate under a mysterious mandate to continue this futile exercise, massaging our frontal lobes in hopes of generating unique prescience. While examining tealeaves, rolling dice or consulting horoscope charts might be more fruitful, we rely instead on our self-proclaimed brilliance to preview what lies ahead. Reading the classifieds in your local newspaper will no doubt produce more insights than what follows, but the traditions of hack journalism must be carried on, so let's get the sordid business out of the way as quickly as possible:

1. More of the same. You will be driving essentially the same automobile at the end of 2002 as you are now. Several companies may join Honda and Toyota in offering hybrid-powered (gas-electric) vehicles, but they will remain expensive to build, with the manufacturers absorbing massive loses on units that are heavier and slower than conventional vehicles of the same size.

As for fuel cells, look for Elvis to return before they appear under your hood. The cost of production remains enormous, with per-kilowatt efficiency roughly one-percent that of a contemporary internal-combustion engine. General Motors has already shifted its efforts to stationary fuel-cells that someday may be suitable for home and commercial heating, but clear thinkers believe cost-efficient fuel-cell vehicles are perhaps twenty years in the future, if ever. The electric car, for all its hype, is the Passenger Pigeon of automobiles; dead, gone, forgotten.

We might see more diesels, but only if current EPA emissions standards are loosened. Ironically Germany has embraced excellent, high-efficiency, high-performance diesels. If the nutcase German Greens can accept them, why can't their counterparts in America? Diesels are viable alternatives to gasoline-powered internal combustion engines, but domestic emissions rules---especially in California---must be modified before they become widely available. That ought to be done, but don't expect it in the immediate future.

2. What energy crisis? Forget the weird spike in gasoline prices last summer. The world is awash in petroleum, with no sign of shortages. OPEC is frantically dragooning its members to keep per-barrel prices above 20 bucks while Russia plays it cute. The Old Soviet Union is bulging with oil and both Putin and Bush understand this wild card can trump the Saudis if Russian refinery capacity can be developed to anywhere near its potential. Recall that in 1947 proven worldwide oil reserves (following unbelievable consumption during WWII) stood at 68 billion barrels. In the next 41 years we consumed 783 billion barrels and ended up with over one trillion barrels in reserve today. The same is true for natural gas. In 1966 we supposedly had one quadrillion feet in reserve. Since then we have consumed almost two quadrillion and now have more than five quadrillion in reserve. Go figure.

3. Ghosts of CAFE. The 40 mpg CAFE standard is another Elvis-sighting in the Halls of Congress. Greenies like Al Gore, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the usually rational Bill O'Reilly of Fox News can bleat, in the O'Reilly's words, "that our greedy corporate systems and our weak-willed politicians" are denying Americans 50 miles-per-gallon cars while filling the coffers of the Saudi Royal Family. This is political theatre at its worst. There are over a dozen car models available from domestic and imported manufacturers that exceed 30 mpg in normal driving, but most are slow sellers. (Honda's tiny, two-seat Insight hybrid, which will get nearly 50 mpg while running 75 mph, has sold only 4500 units against expected sales of 6000 annually.)

The fact is, 50 mpg remains the lost chord of auto industry. It cannot be achieved while retaining the size, capacity, safety, performance and cost of a contemporary vehicle. The Chicken Littles know it. So do the pols in Washington, who also understand that millions-upon-millions of Americans -- small businessmen, farmers, ranchers, contractors, construction workers, handymen, maintenance personal, etc. -- buy and lease large, hefty pickups, vans and SUV's not for status but for their hard-edged commercial requirements. And hulking SUV's like the Ford Excursion, Cadillac Escalade, etc. that serve as the gas-guzzling villains for the elite media play no serious role. They sell about 60,000 units each annually and both took a hit in sales when gas prices ballooned.

Thanks to the wisdom of the American consumer and free market forces, these leviathans, like other $50,000-$100,000 super SUV's, will ebb and flow in sales in accordance with gasoline prices and availability, as will the super-efficient compacts at the other end of the size and price scale. Do we need bureaucrats in Washington to meddle with a system that already works?

4. America stays on wheels. For all the political posturing, the whining of the media elites and the gyrations of the economy, the domestic transportation mix currently composed of wheeled vehicles, large and small, fast and slow, efficient and inefficient, will remain essentially unchanged.

And be thankful. It is this mobility that lies at the core of our national power. Our ability to move, both individually and in terms of entire population migrations to where economic strength lies is our secret strength. (Forget the sunny weather in the south and west, as Willie Sutton said, "That's where the money is.") Our blessed mobility lies not in mass transit but in the single-unit motor vehicle. Love it or hate it, that's where it's going to be for a long time to come.


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