TCS Daily

Jungle John's Reality Check

By Brock Yates - March 4, 2004 12:00 AM

Presuming the Democratic Party isn't seized in a cabal led by Jane Fonda and Oliver Stone, it appears that "Jungle John" Kerry -- the man who never lets us forget he won medals in Viet Nam -- is headed for the presidential nomination. As many have observed, thus could reside the most liberal Senator in the country in the White House, especially if Dubya doesn't get his act together and stop acting like a member of the Americans for Democratic Action.

Jungle John's rise to prominence has some folks in the automobile industry chewing nervously on their Mont Blancs, fearing that if even a small percentage of his stump speeches is enacted into law, the nation's population might have to abandon automobiles in favor of Chinese-style bicycles.

Sen. Kerry already formally proposed to the Senate in 2002 to bump the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) from the current level of about 24 miles per gallon (cars and light trucks) to 35 mpg -- a 50 percent increase over 10 years.

The Senate rejected Kerry's plan with little fanfare, but one must be reminded that as President he could appoint Department of Transportation bureaucrats who could jack up the standard through simple regulatory powers.

As it exists, the light truck CAFE is 20.7 mpg, but according to the Bush administration, this will be increased to 22.2 mpg between the 2005 and 2007 model years. The passenger car standards are to remain at 27.5 mpg.

During his campaign for the Presidency, Kerry has been a strong advocate for a radical energy policy, one that hammers on the theme of ridding the nation of dependence on Middle Eastern petroleum. This is an obvious and desirable goal, but when he and other pols openly reject further drilling on Alaska's North Slope and offshore while making simple and childish demands for radical increases in fuel mileage, their rhetoric devolves into a low-rent political blather.

Of course we would all delight in seeing America's 250-odd million motor vehicles zipping about on miracle power sources that would not pollute the atmosphere or affect adversely the economy.

But harsh physical realities exist. A national CAFE standard of the level proposed by the Democrats would excise millions of light trucks, SUV's and large sedans from the market. They would be replaced by lighter, flimsier machines that would not only be less safe but would be incapable of hauling the loads necessary both for small businesses and families. Based on their limited size and weight, they would also be manifestly less safe in crashes.

Pols like Kerry choose to ignore these realities, implying instead that the tycoons in the auto industry churlishly keep fuel mileage low due to sloth, greed, and long-term conspiracies with the oil barons. This of course is idiocy. If a light truck, family sedan or SUV could be designed that offered 35-40 miles to the gallon with comparable performance and safety, Honda and Toyota -- who lead in such technology -- would have it on the market in a heartbeat.

Hybrids, the chimerical Fuel-Cell, alternate fuels, etc. are halcyon ideas that make for great chatter on the campaign trail, but in the real world of automobile engineering, they remain interesting concepts on the fringe of practicality. We may someday see them in the automotive mainstream, but for the foreseeable future we have no alternative but to slog ahead, seeking incremental increases in efficiency from the machine that refuses to die -- the petroleum-powered, internal-combustion engine. Live with it.


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