The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

21 April 2004

Fuels rush in where wise men never go

As a person who actually likes cars, as distinguished from the folks who view them as (at best) necessary evils, I tend to take a dim view of the government's Corporate Average Fuel Economy scheme. How dim? I wrote this in December: far has produced far more pages of regulation than gallons of gas. If it is necessary to, um, persuade consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, a proposition rather difficult to defend without falling back on "Because we said so," the most direct approach is to increase the tax on fuel. This puts the decision into the hands of the individual, where it rightfully belongs.

As an object lesson in how purely arbitrary these so-called "standards" are, the NHTSA announced this week that Nissan will be exempted for the next five years from one of them: the so-called "two-fleet" rule, which specifies that imported models and domestics must meet the standards separately. GM, for instance, can't use the tiny Chevrolet Aveo, produced by what's left of Daewoo in South Korea, to offset an Impala.

In Nissan's case, the small Sentra sedan, assembled in Mexico, has been balancing out Infiniti Q45s and such from Japan. Under the rules of NAFTA, the Sentra will be reclassified as a domestic as of 2005, meaning Nissan's imports will no longer meet CAFE targets. NHTSA's decision, opposed by actual US automakers, means that Nissan can count both imports and domestics in a single fleet.

This is only the second such waiver granted by NHTSA since the beginnings of CAFE. (Volkswagen got the first; it has since expired.) Nissan had threatened to cut production at its two US plants, one in Mississippi, the other in Tennessee, should the waiver not be granted. Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) and Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) — what a surprise! — had lobbied NHTSA to cut Nissan some slack.

The two-fleet rule is, of course, rather stupid. So is the rule which counts cars and "light trucks" in separate fleets: to pick just one example of egregiousness, Chrysler's PT Cruiser, which has a removable back seat, is considered a truck — except for its convertible version, whose back seat is not removable, which means it's a car.

There's no justification for this program anymore, if indeed there ever was. The government can publish all the fuel-economy numbers it wants, but buyers have the right to ignore them should they so desire, and manufacturers, once basic safety standards are met, shouldn't have to answer to Washington for their design decisions.

Posted at 11:03 AM to Driver's Seat , Family Joules

>"If it is necessary to, um, persuade consumers to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, a proposition rather difficult to defend without falling back on "Because we said so," the most direct approach is to increase the tax on fuel."

This logic is so obviously correct that there must be an unobvious economic reason for CAFE standards. I suspect it has something to do with the damaging economic effects of increasing oil prices. The energy value/cost ratio of gasoline is amazingly cheap compared to other fuels and probably more responsible for our nation's economic stability than most of us realize.

Then again, I see a benefit in a similar government 'Energy Star' program with efficiency standards for appliances and other products. Now you have me questioning my support of that program.

Posted by: Mike at 1:58 PM on 21 April 2004

The spread between most-efficient and least-efficient appliances, I believe, isn't as pronounced as the difference you'll find in motor vehicles. I turned up the yellow EnergyGuide sticker for the fridge I bought last fall, and the difference in kWh/year between the greediest model of this size and the stingiest was a mere 18 percent. By contrast, the Monroney sticker on my car reported the range for mid-size vehicles as 18 to 26 mpg in the city, 23 to 33 mpg on the highway. (The official rating of this car is 22/28, right in the middle; I routinely exceed this by about five to ten percent, unless the weather is exceptionally cold.)

And besides, appliances, like rides, tend to be bought on the basis of price and features; energy consumption, for most buyers, is generally a tertiary consideration at best.

Posted by: CGHill at 6:05 PM on 21 April 2004