Fuel Efficiency Trade-Offs

Monday's Page One article “Drumbeat grows louder for fuel efficiency” cites John Lichtblau's claim that Congress missed an opportunity in the recently enacted energy bill to reduce oil prices by tightening Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. However, CAFE's curbing of demand for oil in the '70s and '80s, when the standards were put into effect, was small. America's demand for oil increased in that period and through to present day. 

Also, any increase in fuel efficiency as a result of higher CAFE standards would be slow to take effect because the turnover in the auto fleet takes many years. It's also not clear that higher gas mileage would reduce the demand for gasoline. Peter Huber and Mark Mills argue in their recent book, “The Bottomless Well,” that in the past, “improvements in efficiency culminated in more demand, not less.” This is not surprising; people will drive more if they can afford it. 

This is a positive outcome, although not in the way Mr. Lichtblau suggests. The article cites a poll in which 93 percent responded that they would like more efficient cars. Who wouldn't? However, it is unlikely the respondents understand the consequences of mandating fuel efficiency. 

Better mileage per gallon almost always means smaller and lighter cars. Unfortunately, this also means less safe cars. According to the National Research Council's 2003 CAFE study, the current regulations are responsible annually for the deaths of 1,300 to 2,600 Americans. 

Is this what we want? After all, highly fuel efficient compact cars are available for purchase and are cheaper than the larger alternatives, but many people still choose to buy sport utility vehicles. The fact is, without CAFE, automotive companies will improve gas mileage at the rate that technology and people's demand for safety will allow.