The Problem with CAFE
As I have been reading reports of the current debate over the pending energy legislation, it occurred to me that there is a fundamental problem with the approach to CAFE standards. The Washington Post reported on the issue in today’s edition:
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said after a speech to the Center for American Progress yesterday that the increase in auto-fuel efficiency requirements, known as the corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards, would be the most controversial part of the Senate package. It orders auto companies to hit a 35-mile-per-gallon target by 2020 and improve mileage 4 percent a year after that.
“I know that the auto industry is still wavering on this issue,” Reid said. “I met with the CEOs of the big three automakers last week, and here is what I told them: The debate on raising CAFE standards should be over. It will happen. And perhaps if they had joined us instead of fighting us these last 20 years, they might not be in the financial mess they’re in today.”
So what’s the problem? Isn’t raising CAFE standards a good idea? On the surface, yes. And I absolutely agree that our fuel efficiency in the U.S. is terrible and must improve. But the problem I see is that this attempts to address the issue in the same way that windfall profits’ proposals attempt to address the issue of high gas prices. There are plenty of high fuel efficiency cars on the market now. The problem is, people aren’t demanding them. They want their SUVs and big trucks. What people are really after here is a free lunch. They think increasing CAFE standards will make everyone else drive a fuel-efficient vehicle. Or, they think this will result in a dramatic boost in the fuel efficiency of those trucks and SUVs.
I see the point made by the auto industry, because this will force them to make vehicles that people aren’t demanding. This is incredibly inefficient legislation. There are other ways to increase the demand for fuel-efficient vehicles, rather than forcing auto makers to increase the supply (that doesn’t happen to be in demand). What this may do is restrict the supply of inefficient vehicles, thus boosting prices for them. And a secondary effect may then be that people will turn to more fuel-efficient vehicles. But it is an incredibly convoluted way to achieve that goal.
As I said, this is analogous to the windfall profits’ measures that have been debated. People see this as a free lunch. The oil companies will be punished by having some of their profits taken away, thus somehow resulting in lower prices for all (as the companies respond to this punishment?) It is legislation aimed at the wrong problem. Oil companies make big profits because there is high demand for their product. And fuel efficiency is low because there is high demand for trucks and SUVs. The current legislation being debated won’t change that.
There is no free lunch. Increasing CAFE standards is not going to increase the public’s desire to drive fuel efficient cars, nor is it going to result in a 35 mpg Ford Expedition.