Gas Pains

Well, Congress is working on raising the federal gas-mileage standards, and I have to say I’m not surprised. It’s a short-sighted, feel-good solution to a problem that doesn’t really need fixing — in other words, it’s precisely the sort of thing that we should expect from Congress.

The idea is simple — seductively so. We can decrease our dependency on foreign oil and save people money if cars simply use less gasoline to move about. And the easiest way for the government to influence that is by fiat: to simply order the auto makers to make more fuel efficient cars.

It’s been a tenet of mine that if you want something done in the most inefficient, most ineffective, most cumbersome, most expensive, and most unproductive way, have the federal government do it. (Remind me to discuss the “health care crisis” in this light some time.) And when it comes to micromanaging the automobile industry, that rule is especially true. And jacking up the fuel standards are a perfect example of a “solution” that is wrong on so many levels — but it makes the “right” people (a bunch of voters and sheep-like lawmakers) feel like they’ve done something noble.

Let’s start off with the enforcement mechanism. The way fuel economy is enforced is through a metric called CAFE — Corporate Average Fuel Economy. This means that companies can sell vehicles that get poor gas mileage, as long as they sell enough high-economy cars to balance them out. That sounds fair, right?

Yes — right up until you realize that for every car they sell, they have to have a buyer. Ford might be required by law to sell a certain number of highly-efficient cars, but there is no obligation on the buyers to buy them. That means that if the people don’t willingly pony up the bucks for the econoboxes, Ford has to make them want to buy them. The main incentive Ford has is economic — they have to discount the cars radically, even to the point of losing money on each sale, just to make up for selling the less-efficient cars that people are more willing to buy.

It’s worse when it comes to hybrids and electrics. Those cars are actually subsidized by the government, meaning that we get to join the automakers in paying people to drive cars they really don’t want. In other words, you and I are helping Ed Begley Jr. tool around in his electric car.

Next up is related. People say they want more fuel-efficient cars, but their actions speak differently. There are a lot of vehicles that get really good mileage, and a lot that get less than great mileage. Which ones do we see more of on the road? Big, powerful cars. Small, high-performance cars. And the much-hated SUVs. Unlike hybrids and electrics, there is no subsidy for buying cars that get crappy mileage. In fact, there’s a financial penalty involved based purely on the increased operating expenses of keeping them gassed up. Toss in that, until recently, these vehicles were being sold at a premium (meaning that dealers would just toss on an extra charge for them simply because they could get people to pay it), and we see that despite all the harsh condemnation of SUVs, people really wanted them.

Then there’s the technical problems. Congress apparently thinks that all the automakers have to do is wave their magic wands (or dip into their magic bag of tricks and technological innovations) and they can simply find a technical solution to improving vehicle efficiency.

The problem is that there’s no guarantee that such a thing will happen by the deadline — or ever.

People want things in their cars. They want enough power to make them feel like they can do whatever they want behind the wheel. They want safety features that will protect them from the inevitable accidents. They want creature comforts so they can relax and enjoy the trip. They want room to carry around with them all the stuff they think they might want to have. They want space for their family and friends.

The problem is, all these things come with a price. And that price is, more often than not, measured in pounds. Every single one of these adds weight to the vehicle, and that weight directly drives the fuel economy of the vehicle downward. (With the exception of performance, which usually has the same effect without actually adding to the vehicle’s mass.)

You want fantastic fuel economy? Get rid of the V-8 engine, drive a 6 or a 4 cylinder. Dump the front air bags, the side air bags, the crumple zones, the collapsing steering column, the reinforced body, the bumpers, the seat belts. Lose the leather seats, the air conditioning, the comfortable suspension, the CD player, the DVD player, navigation system, the extra lights. Downsize and lose the giant cargo area, the third row of seats, the roof rack.

There are a zillion Civics, Tercels, Focuses, Aveos, Calibers, Versas, and other cars just begging to be sold. They all get really good mileage, and they still have a lot of the safety features we want. But given the choice, we choose the bigger, more powerful, more comfortable vehicles by an overwhelming margin.

I’m no different. I’ve almost always had larger cars. I like having the room, I like the comfortable ride, and I feel better having the power of a bigger engine. But I’ve never groused about the price I pay in decreased mileage. I recognize that I’ve made a choice, and I accept the consequences of that choice.

Too many people don’t want that. They want everything, but they don’t want to have to pay the penalties that come with them. So they do what comes naturally for them — they demand that the government give them what they want, and make someone else pay for them.

In this case, the ones who are going to subsidize these demands are the auto makers, who are already in big financial trouble. Chrysler is about to be sold for the second time in recent history. Ford is in seriously bad shape, and GM is not much better.

But that doesn’t matter. We, the American people, want to have our cake and eat it, too, and dammit, we’re going to have it.

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Law & Order