The US Government introduced CAFE – Corporate Average Fuel Economy – in 1975. The law forced every car company to build cars which, on a sales-weighted average basis, would achieve ever-higher standards of fuel economy.
The point, of course, was to reduce the demand for fossil fuels, improve the environment, and – this became much more important latterly – reduce the western world’s dependence on petroleum supplies, which come mainly from politically-unreliable hotbeds like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and Alberta (relax – it’s a joke).
The hope was best expressed in the theme for the movie ‘Field of Dreams': build them, and they (the customers) will come.
Never mind that the US government did nothing to stimulate demand for such cars - gasoline was and remains essentially free, at least compared to RoW (Rest of World).
Rather than pay huge fines to the government, car makers were required to effectively toss these cars off buildings onto unsuspecting customers, because nobody wanted them. One Lincoln-Mercury dealer actually resorted to GIVING away a Bobcat (the Mercury-badged version of the Ford Pinto) to anyone who bought a Lincoln Mark VII.
Csaba Csere, the long-time if now former editor of Car and Driver magazine, wrote a column summarizing the first 25 years of CAFÉ. According to the thoughtful and intelligent Csere, the net effect of this program was – wait for it – ZERO.
Rather than be forced into little cars they didn’t want and for which there was no incentive to buy, American consumers switched to pick-up trucks and SUVs, which initially were not subject to CAFÉ regulations (lower CAFÉ standards for trucks were subsequently introduced).
Calculating an ‘industry-wide’ average fuel economy including cars and light trucks used as (or in place of) cars, Csere noted that it hadn’t budged the needle one iota.
People simply replaced inefficient cars with inefficient trucks.
Now, there’s a fossil-fuel-saving, environment-enhancing strategy.
The current US administration has raised CAFÉ yet again, but still refuses to contemplate the only tactic that has even a remote chance of changing America’s appetite for petroleum – raise its price.
Do that, and the customers will demand more fuel-efficient cars, the car industry will build them, and all the objectives will be met.
However, bureaucrats can never be fired, so we have to give the CAFÉ people something to do.
A friend of mine (I can’t remember who it was, so if you like this idea and want to take credit, let me know) suggested that CAFÉ is completely backwards.
Instead of forcing car makers to build MORE efficient cars, they should pass a law making it illegal to build a car that gets, say, better than 10 miles per gallon (uses less than 28 litres per 100 km in the metric system).
It’d have the same effect as raising the price of gasoline, but presumably would be less suicidal politically-speaking.
Why would this work?
Because if all of a sudden driving your gas-guzzler to work will cost you sixty, seventy, eighty bucks a day, maybe then you’ll think about taking the bus, subway, train, bike, or - gasp - walk.
Or, as I’ll point out tomorrow, consider the truly fuel-efficient way to get to work.