Thursday, March 30, 2006

Performance per Gallon

Today's New York Times reports on two aspects of the revised Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that go into effect in two years. In the business section, they describe the rule changes, which raise the average mileage requirement in the "light truck" category from 21.6 to 24 mpg. On the front page, however, they focus on the way that engine and vehicle technology improvements since the the 1970s have favored performance over economy. They suggest that, had priorities been different, today's cars would use 20% less fuel than they do, saving nearly as much oil as we currently import from the Middle East. While the modifications to CAFE fall well short of what many environmental and energy security advocates have called for, they represent a significant change in the political landscape of this issue.

When CAFE standards were established during the Ford administration, immediately following the Arab Oil Embargo, it was appropriate to hold light trucks to a lower standard than cars. At the time, these vehicles only accounted for less than 15% of the total vehicle fleet in this country, compared to nearly 36% today. The vast majority of light trucks were pick-ups and vans used by farms and businesses, not SUVs bought as substitutes for sedans and station wagons. The technology of the day couldn't meet the same gas mileage standards imposed on cars and still deliver the performance needed for commerce.

The second Times article demonstrates how dramatically the situation has changed. Current model SUVs weighing 5,000 lbs. accelerate better that some of the "muscle cars" of the past, at least when compared to the rather anemic performance cars available in the mid-1970s, when emissions controls had forced manufacturers to reduce compression ratios and de-tune engines to suit the needs of early catalytic converters.

In some respects, the changes to CAFE represent a milestone. For years the so-called "SUV gap", the difference in standards between passenger cars and light trucks, had been off-limits, because it was regarded as a major engine of profits and jobs in the US car industry. Addressing this gap indicates the seriousness of the current energy situation. It also reflects the erosion of Detroit's advantage in this market segment and the wider array of technology options available to boost SUV mileage, including hybridization and a host of less expensive tweaks. But it misses the fact that SUVs could get much better mileage today, if only consumers didn't expect these vehicles to deliver 0-60 performance similar to that of a sports coupe.

To put the impact of the SUV trend into perspective, we've added approximately 100 million net vehicles since 1975, and 65% of the increase is in light trucks and SUVs. On a massive scale, consumers have chosen trucks over cars, negating the original justification for holding trucks to a lower mileage standard. But now the argument of economic necessity has shifted from protecting trucks and commercial truck buyers to cutting oil imports, and SUVs will have to adjust. All that remains is the much tougher challenge of shifting the preferences of consumers away from the big, heavy vehicles they've selected in overwhelming numbers since the mid-1980s, when the last energy crisis ended.

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