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August 28, 2005

Norm Minetta Proposes Higher Fuel Efficiency Standards For Light Trucks and SUV's

Anathema to many, and I'm sure not a fan of Minetta. But...

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta proposed imaginative fuel efficiency standards for new SUVs, vans and pickups. This scheme would divide light trucks into a half-dozen categories based on size, not weight.

By 2011, the smallest so-called "truck" (a PT Cruiser) would have to attain 28.4 mpg, while the largest could get by with 21.3. Add a few inches, and the standards drop. Fatten up to 8,500 pounds, and there are no rules.

I don't know... given the situation we're in, is it horrible for the government to coerce auto manufacturers into engineering these large vehicles to get slightly better mileage?

It's not impossible, and it's not always necessary to simply lighten the vehicle up and replace life-saving steel with weaker aluminum alloys:

The editorial cites a report "from President Bush's own Environmental Protection Agency" supposedly proving "America's cars and trucks are significantly less efficient, on average, than they were in the late 1980s, and that leaps in technology have been used to make vehicles more powerful but not more fuel efficient."

What did that EPA report show about those demonized SUVs? In 1978, SUVs weighed 4,202 pounds, produced 146 horsepower and got only 12.3 miles per gallon (mpg) in combined city-highway driving. By 1988, they were down to 3,859 pounds, had only 144 horsepower but got 17.4 mpg.

By 2005, by contrast, SUVs were up to 4,649 pounds and had 236 horsepower yet achieved a record 18.1 mpg. That demonstrates a huge fuel efficiency increase -- much more space, safety, comfort and performance with less fuel. Efficiency means getting more for less, not getting less for more. The United States is impressively energy-efficient.

That can be interpreted two different ways. One, we don't need additional government coercion, because manufacturers already have an economic incentive to produce higher-efficiency vehicles.

Or, two, we can engineer cars to get slightly better mileage without reducing weight and safety, and if the government can act as a spur to give engineers additional motivation to do so, perhaps we should.

I don't know. As I've said before, yes, I'm generally against government regulation, but there's a tragedy-of-the-commons sort of effect here that keeps increasing our dependency on oil controlled by terrorist-friendly or terrorist-sponsoring nations.

What if SUV's shed about 400 pounds, bringing them closer to the 1998 average, but kept the 2005 engineering making them more fuel efficient? A two-ton road yacht is still nothing to sneeze at. And perhaps they could get 20 or 21 mpg. Not a huge increase, but not a trivial one either.

Government coercion in technological matters has benefits. (I know it also has drawbacks.) But a forced emphasis on improving a technology will, almost invariably, make that technology more advanced and also cheaper, even if it is simply due to wider utilization (the more people who have it, the cheaper per-unit cost of research and development and manufacturing costs).

Just sayin'.

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posted by Ace at 11:54 AM

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