TCS Daily

The Road to CAFE

By John Merline - January 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Back in 1974, Ford executive vice president Fred Secrest warned that if Congress passed mandatory fuel economy standards for cars, Ford would have to abandon its large cars, and sell "all sub-Pinto-sized vehicles or some mix of vehicles ranging from a sub-sub-compact to perhaps a Maverick." Now, 25 years after Congress passed Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that forced Detroit to sharply boost the overall gas mileage of its fleet, environmentalists raise Secrest's prediction as proof of how easy it would be for the auto companies to increase the fuel economy of their hottest commodities - sports utility vehicles, or SUVs.

Only Secrest was right. And this fact is ignored in today's debate over mandating further increases in fuel economy. With the nation again beset by unrest in the Middle East, a campaign launched by columnist Arianna Huffington equates driving SUVs with supporting terrorists. A Christian group urges Detroit to downsize SUVs, and Christians to buy more efficient cars generally, because that's what Jesus supposedly would do. Underlying it all is the assumption that SUVs, and the rest of the car fleet for that matter, can easily be put on a stricter gasoline diet, if only Detroit would abandon its decades-long resistance to improved fuel economy.

A report from the National Academy of Science appears to bolster the claim. As the July 2001 report noted, "technologies exist that, if applied to passenger cars and light-duty trucks, would significantly reduce fuel consumption within 15 years." The report assumes, however, that car companies would actually use all this technology, and consumers would buy the cars. If it doesn't work that way, carmakers would have to resort to cutting the size of their car fleets, which has the unfortunate negative side effect of killing people, since small cars are less safe than larger cars. And there's no reason to assume that any new CAFE mandate will work better than the old one did.

The existing standards, in fact, did just what Secrest predicted they would. They forced car makers to entirely abandon the large cars they used to make, to the point where everyone today is driving what in 1976 passed as a midsize car or smaller.

Consider: In 1976, a large car weighed an average 4,562 pounds and had an average wheelbase of nearly 123 inches. A compact car built that year weighed an average 3,631 pounds and had a wheelbase of almost 112 inches, according to data from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. By that standard, a 2003 Lincoln Continental, once the epitome of a large car, is a runt. It has a wheelbase of just 109 inches, and a curbweight of a only 3,848 pounds. A new Cadillac DeVille is a bit more hefty, weighing in at 3,978 pounds with a wheelbase of 115 inches. That's about equal to a 1976 midsize. And has anybody seen a full-sized station wagon lately?

In other words, even with nearly three decades of fuel-saving technological improvements, carmakers still haven't found a way to make big cars big again and meet current CAFE standards. Weight and size, it appears, remain obstacles too large to overcome, at least at a price anyone can afford.

So what about all those vans and SUVs on the road? Ironically, that market sprang up in large part because automakers had to kill off their big car lines. In its infinite wisdom, Congress set a lower fuel economy standard for light trucks, a category into which minivans, SUVs and pickups all fall. When Detroit abandoned big cars, those who wanted the safety and versatility only truly large vehicles can provide had nowhere else to turn but the automakers' truck lines.

Given this history, there's little reason to think SUVs and minivans could survive a sharp increase in fuel economy standards any better than the car market did.

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