President Obama is calling for Café standards to be 56mpg by 2025. News articles and editorials lament that in Europe people can buy 60+mpg cars but the car companies “wont” sell them in the USA. The blame the car companies and ignores the reality of mobility in the USA.
The first thing is that people in the USA purchase a car for the weekends, and suffer with it for commuting. The choice of a vehicle to pull a boat, a camper, or take a long road trip has a lot of different criteria; fuel efficiency is important but not as important as a vehicle that will do the job. Although a tiny euro-econobox get’s great millage, squeezing 2 kids, spot the wonder dog, luggage, gifts, and all the necessary stuff to take the two day 1200 mile trip to visit grandma is not something many people wouldn’t do twice. Once it’s all loaded down, the euro-econobox won’t comfortably climb over the mountains. So although for everyday driving, to work, to the mall, to school, etc. the euro-econobox is a viable solution, the savings in fuel economy, are lost if you have to rent a big vehicle a couple times every year for family excursions, and it won’t tow the boat.
Then there are the details that most editorials don’t tell us when they talk about how wonderful the 60mpg euro-econobox car is, other than the evil car companies won’t sell them in the USA. They are light weight, and usually have a diesel engine. This is a big problem in the USA, the greater cost of diesel means that there is no savings in owning one, but you do have the smell, and smog…. those engines don’t meet us pollution control standards so can’t be sold in the US. Thus our government has declared that to decrease some exhaust gases, like particulate carbon and NOx, we are willing to create more of other gasses like CO2.
Now don’t forget the weight, our pollution and safety regulations have added significant mass to every vehicle on the road today. Compare the 1970 VW Beetle to the 2010 VW Beatle. In 1970 The VW Beatle had acceptable but not great performance, got a real 25MPG, with a very inefficient, air cooled, 57hp, 1600cc engine (using zero ethanol gas, with today’s fuel it only has around 45HP). It weighed less than 1600 pounds. Today’s Beetle gets the same 25MPG. Why after 40 years does the same model car get the same mileage it did in 1970?
Weight, today’s Beetle is about half a ton heavier, it weighs over 2600 pounds, has an engine that is 67% more mass, puts out about 3 times the horse power, carries 67% more fuel, has pounds and pounds of insulation and other materials to make the ride and noise levels acceptable, and significant increases in suspension to carry the extra weight. It has about the same MPG rating as the 1970 Beetle because the USA’s regulations have force it to carry massive amounts safety and pollution control equipment. Although in production until 2004, the old original Beetle design was eliminated from the US market 25 years before that because it could not meet the continuously more restrictive US regulations. In 1987 you had your choice of several 50+ MPG cars in the US. The Suzuki Swift, Geo Metro, Honda CRX, and similar models come to mind. Those cars continue to be sold in other parts of the world but not the US.
One of the big reasons we don’t have high MPG cars in the USA is that unlike other countries, the nanny state of the USA is not willing to let the people choose a car with the level of safety and pollution that accompany a tiny 1400 pound diesel car. The euro-econobox Fiat 500 being brought to the USA, is only going to get about 33MPG, and have less room and comfort than other cars with similar mileage ratings, etc. The Fiat 500 being sold in the US is not actually the same Fiat 500 sold in Europe. It is a different design that is built in Mexico. There are at least 45 major changes; The headlamps were raised 4 inches to meet US lighting laws; The wiper blades are longer to comply with the US law that stipulates how much of the windshield must be kept clear; The doors and lower pillars have steel reinforced braces to meet side impact regulations; The side airbag in the U.S. car extends to the back seat, it doesn’t in Europe (even if you never have a passenger in the micro back seat, you are having to pay for extended airbags); The spare tire was moved under the car to improve floor strength. The requirements to have the care sold in the US are so great, it virtually had to be redesigned.
All these changes to meet regulations cause increased weight, which means it needs more power, which means we cannot use the efficient little 57HP diesel the 60mpg euro version uses. This engine won’t meet the emission standards, and the added weight required for the US model means that the Fiat 500 won’t perform at acceptable levels with any of the smaller engine options available. Thus in the USA we only get the largest high performance 1.4L engine option. At around $16,000 other than for its retro-Italian styling it’s hard to fathom why people in the US would choose the Mexican built Fiat 500, over the roomier, equally fuel efficient, better guaranteed, choices available. (On another note, the tax dollars used to help out Chrysler, built a Fiat plant in Mexico not the USA.)
The government killed the big American Sedan, It used to be that the family bought a big sedan or station wagon that could pull a boat, was safe and was good for the great American road trip. The Ford LTD, Chrysler Newport, Chevy Impala, Buick Roadmaster and similar models were the family car. The government added café standards, and other regulations and those 12 mpg cars had to be eliminated, some of America bought the smaller cars the ruling elite in Washington wanted them to buy. Overall America’s needs and wants didn’t change, but the government rules did, so we continued to buy vehicles that did what we needed and wanted, trucks, 4 door pickups, SUV’s, conversion vans, etc.; a vehicle big enough to haul the camper, protect the family, with room enough to spread out on a long road trip. Truck and SUV sales didn’t sky rocket because America’s tastes changed, the government interfered with the free market and tried to force people into what the ruling elite in Washington wanted people to drive, not what met their needs and desires.
This is what it looked like at the end of the 70’s, a family sedan, today that picture would have a big SUV. I just can’t see a Fiat 500 towing an Airstream across America. Americans didn’t quit wanting to travel in comfort, on their own time schedule going where they wanted, but the government sure is trying to make it harder. The USA is not Europe, we drive thousands of miles more than they do on the other side of the pond. We are not all bunched up in old cities. This country grew up around the automobile, our suburbs, malls, drive-in’s, all were designed around cars and mobility. We have demanded safety standards the rest of the world doesn’t think are necessary. We won’t tolerate the same kind of pollution Europe does.
Only pinhead pseudo-intellectuals would think that American car companies don’t want to sell high MPG cars. American car companies sell what Americans want to buy. We do want fuel efficiency, just not at the expense of safety. We do want fuel efficiency, just not at the expense of ability to tow a trailer. We do want fuel efficiency, just not at the expense a comfortable ride on long trips. Like most Americans I don’t need my SUV for my everyday use, I purchased an SUV because a couple times a year, I need to pull a trailer with my motorcycles and camping gear for a week in the mountains. The alternative say pinhead pseudo-intellectuals, is to own and use a small car and rent a truck or SUV for the few times you actually need it. The problem is that the cost of driving a small car everyday and renting a bigger vehicle for the few times I actually need it, is greater than driving the SUV every day.
I live in a rural part of the country and drive 20000 miles per year, of that about 3600 miles is for vacations. My SUV gets an honest 20mpg. Do the math and for the 20000 miles per year I drive every year, I use about 1000 gallons of fuel. If I followed pinhead pseudo-intellectuals suggestion and I’d drive my 33mpg car 16400 miles I’d use about 500 gallons of fuel, and I’d rent an SUV as needed for my 36oo miles of vacation driving. If you do the math assuming $3.50 per gallon of gas, if I had a small car for everyday that got 33MPG and rented an SUV when I needed it, I’d save about $1120 in fuel costs, Add to that about $1200 in renting an SUV for my two week-long vacations to the mountains. It’s actually cheaper to drive my SUV everyday than it is to own a small car and rent an SUV for the few times I need it and I get the added benefit of a more versatile, more comfortable, and safer vehicle everyday not just on vacations.
The needs and desires of the American people drive the choices we make in vehicles. The government getting in the way doesn’t change the needs and desires of the people. CAFE standards killed the large American sedan. They did not change why the large American sedan was so popular. What the CAFE Standard did was move the people to mini-vans, pickups, and SUVs. This is typical of the unintended consequences that come with government regulations. I predict an unintended consequence of Obama’s increase in the CAFE standard will be a huge increase in the purchase of commercial vehicles by the people which in reality will be used for non-commercial purposes, like towing the boat, camper, and taking long trips. The market will provide the people with what they want in spite of how the government tries to control what people spend their money on.