CAFE sucks

This week saw a fine example of political gamesmanship from the Obama administration. He let down his base yet again by opening up certain portions of the U.S. coast to offshore petroleum drilling in an attempt to undercut his (supposed) foes across the aisle, and upped CAFE standards. The former has gotten a lot more press than the latter. Neither are quite what they seem.

All the opponents he hoped to undercut with the announcement are still unsatisfied, because he left some areas untouchable. That’s not going to make his environmentalist supporters feel any better, but no matter as the administration seems to believe that there is an infinite amount of room under the bus.

So to make them feel a little better, he tossed them a bone by raising CAFE standards. This man knows hollow, political gestures like he was born to make them. CAFE sucks. It’s a system designed to be gamed, and this grand announcement doesn’t change that.

The numbers being touted in the press are either the 2016 fleet average for passenger cars (37.8 mpg) or the 2016 average of cars and trucks (34.1 mpg). You’ll have to dig a little deeper to see the truck average (28.8 mpg by 2016) and understand how CAFE works – along with automotive classifications for the purpose of CAFE – to see how this move is about as substantial as Obama adopting “Drill, baby, drill,” will be to our dependence on foreign oil over the short, medium and even long term.

First, even the 37.8 is rather abysmal in the grand scheme of things, but so long as Americans demand obese vehicles in which their Big Gulp is climate controlled; in which their asses are never too warm nor too cold; in which they can be wrapped in a cocoon of perfect safety to save them from their own idiocy (or that of others); and that require little actual driving, we won’t see good numbers. It’s the market for the lowest, common denominator, stupid.

Second, it’s worth going to the EPA’s fuel economy site and clicking on the lineup for individual automakers. The EPA divides the lineups into cars, minivans, trucks and SUV’s. For most manufactures, trucks and SUV’s account for at least half the lineup. In more than a few cases, trucks outnumber passenger vehicles in the fleet by two to one. And, yes, that includes the liberal environmentalists’ darling Toyota. So what we’re really dealing with is an increase to a whopping 28.8 mpg by 2016.

Third, remember that this is a fleet average number, not a requirement for every vehicle. The automakers will game this system with America’s newest class of vehicle, the “crossover”. Sure, the crossover is a step in the right direction and away from the Stupid Useless Vehicle that Americans adore, but it’s still considered a truck for fuel economy purposes. Christ, America, drive wagons because they’re cool. Don’t ruin wagons by requiring them to be morbidly obese. Next time you see an ad for this or that “crossover”, replace the marketing brand with “fat wagon” because it’s far more accurate.

For example, “The brand-new Chevy equinox, America’s most popular fat wagon, achieves 32 mpg on the highway…your results from equipping it with an automatic transmission and not knowing how to drive may vary…but still, that’s not bad for a chunker, eh?”

Of course, there will be special dispensation in the new CAFE regulations for hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. We love us some greenwashing, don’t we? Don’t get me wrong, it would have been awesome if Ford and Edison had pulled off the electric car for the masses in 1914; we’d have a century of electric vehicle technology advancement under our belts and a grid system designed for them. But they didn’t.

Toyota’s synergy drive, the industry benchmark, is pointless and serves to do little more than soothe the conscience of people hoping to save the planet by making slightly better consumer purchases. It contains two complete systems trying to work together. The end result is two incomplete systems powering a vehicle that can’t match a modern diesel in either efficiency or cleanliness.

The basic concept underlying Chevy’s Volt is good, because the internal combustion engine never drives the vehicle. It’s an electric car with an on-board generator to charge the batteries, meaning that a tiny engine can be tuned for maximum efficiency since the driver will never ask it to speed up or slow down. Unfortunately, GM’s making it a technology platform instead of a practical platform and like the behemoth’s foray into diesel in the 80’s it will probably flop and ruin the idea for a generation.

And of course there will be credits for the grandest boondoggle of them all: E85. Yes, that’s the ticket, a little more socialism for agricultural conglomerates who’d rather use farmland for growing a terribly inefficient fuel than providing sustenance for the nation.

For all i know, the administration’s heart is in the right place, but as it seems overly committed to the formalisms of Versailles it doesn’t really matter where its heart is located. The end result are pointless little tweeks around the edges of a broken system that please few and do little for the average American.

*Don’t look at me, i keep a 24 year old vehicle running. And if the federal government wasn’t so concerned with making sure we all use enough oil to keep corporate profits plump i’d be driving a Kei truck from Japan, as i need to travel several hundred miles to find a speed limit higher than 55. I’ll take 800 lbs of capacity, fold down bed sides, simple construction, off road capability, 40 mpg and right-hand drive, FTW.

16 replies »

  1. Your qualitative points are pretty good, Lex, but you’re discounting the actual numbers a bit too much.

    An improvement from 22.2 MPG in 2010 to 28.8 MPG in 2016 for light trucks is significant, and the fact that it affects half to 2/3rds of the passenger vehicles actually makes it more significant, not less. If you convert MPG to gallons per 100 miles (GPM100) instead, that’s an improvement from 4.505 miles in 2010 to 3.472 GPM in 2016, saving 1.033 gallons of gasoline every hundred miles.

    In contrast, the passenger car standard goes from 27.5 MPG in 2010 to 35.5 MPG in 2016, or 3.636 GPM to 2.817 GPM respectively. That improvement is only 0.819 gallons of gas every 100 miles.

    If you look at the 2009 car sales, there were 1.102 million passenger cars and 1.233 million light trucks sold. The total fuel consumption for those vehicles at 2010 CAFE levels is 9.562 million GPM. The total fuel consumption for those same vehicles sold in 2016 would be 7.385 GPM, an improvement of 2.177 million GPM per 100 miles. That’s not a ton (about 2%), but it’s not negligible either (especially since finished motor gasoline is more than just the gasoline burned by automobiles).

    Note also that the new light truck standard is still better than today’s passenger car standard. That means that even though the system can be gamed, it’ll still be slightly better than today even if you transitioned to 100% light trucks, which isn’t going to happen.

    Ultimately, though, the CAFE standard increase won’t do as much as a price increase would. Since 2007, total motor fuel consumption has fallen as a result of price and the slowing economy more than the CAFE standard would drive it. Using a 3-month moving average, motor fuel consumption peaked in August 2007 at 12.3 billion gallons of fuel. From then until the peak period in 2009 (also the 3 months ending in August), fuel consumption fell 3.3%, all driven by prices and the slow economy.

    What’s going to get vehicle consumption down a lot is this: the economy will improve, and because oil supplies are starting to tighten (ie, the cheap oil is pretty much gone), oil prices will rise. When that happens, people will start buying smaller cars again just like they did in 2007 and 2008, reducing fuel consumption.

    As with every piece of federal law and regulation I can think of, the effects of the CAFE increase and the effects of opening up offshore drilling will be less than the opponents fear and the proponents hope.

  2. Brian, while I like your optimism, Lex is right. I hope your numbers are right (it’s a shame that I should be enthusiastic about a number like 2%), but CAFE can be gamed enough to make it almost worthless. For instance, did you know that the PT Cruiser is a truck? Yep, Chrysler says it’s a truck. And why would they lie? Ok, maybe it’s because the PT Cruiser got better gas mileage than all of their trucks. Classifying it as a truck helped to bring the truck fleet average up enough to help them pass CAFE standards for those model years. Sad, and I have a feeling we’ll see more of that by 2016.

    • But this has always been the case, fikshun, and it’s not possible for companies to game the system entirely – any vehicle has to meet certain qualifications (length, width, total vehicle weight, and so on) to be qualified as a “light truck” instead of a “passenger car.” In addition, customers won’t let all the car companies switch to 100% truck lineups – too many people don’t want trucks of any kind.

      While I didn’t know that the PT Cruiser met the requirements, I’m not surprised either. IIRC, Subaru was doing something similar with the Outback a few years ago, because they didn’t want to meet/were having trouble meeting the passenger car standard with the Outback as a car instead of a truck. These kinds of things suggest that the rigid delineation between a car and a truck that we have now should be altered, but that’s a hell of a lot harder politically than just upping the limits.

      Gaming the CAFE system is nothing new, and I’d be a heck of a lot happier if the increase was even greater and/or if light trucks were forced to meet the same standards as passenger cars (the technology exists for both of those things already, after all). Heck, the fact that cars have such a long lifetime will limit the impact of this increase as vehicles only slowly leave active use. But there will still be reduced fuel consumption across the US vehicle fleet as a result of this change even if the car companies could somehow figure out a way to make all their passenger cars fall under the light truck standards.

      Ultimately I’d rather price the carbon and sulfur compounds and NOx compounds that come out of the tailpipe instead of just mandating increased efficiency, because it would have the same effect (reduced fuel consumption), but I’ll take a CAFE increase over nothing any day.

  3. I see your point, Brian, but really “improving” 1/2 – 2/3 of vehicles on the road to 28.8 mpg is like taking one step forward after taking two steps back. With the right weather, the right kind of driving, and the engine in perfect tune, i can nearly achieve that in a 24 year old truck that isn’t even fuel injected. And i’ve owned two Honda Civics (from the mid-80’s and early-90’s) that came close to the 2016 passenger vehicle numbers.

    That’s my major point here. We’re looking to achieve things that are already achievable, that were already achieved.

    Actually, the only qualifications for “light truck” are GVW under 8,500 lbs; or seating for 12+; or “Available with special features enabling off-street or off-highway operation and use.” So pretty much anything with AWD or 4WD systems can be counted. Or, for example, the Equinox…which is just a wagon with a few inches of lift. Minivans count as “trucks” because they may be used for “utilitarian” purposes as if these are different from “passenger” purposes.

    Half of the Subie lineup are trucks (Forester, Outback and Tribeca).

    And keep in mind that margins on small cars are in relation to the size of the car…unless and until Americans are willing to spend what Europeans spend on a really nice small car that’ll go like stink. So one of the ways that manufacturers game CAFE is by selling a lot of small cars to fleets like rental agencies. They get the credit for the mileage but push higher margin vehicles on their lots, though all those small cars won’t get driven as much.

    One of the ways that the manufacturers will comply with this is the new wave of direct injection and twin turbo charging…though they ruin the goodness of forced induction by killing that beautiful sound of a waste gate fluttering and you’ll never get fireballs to shoot out of the tailpipes when you come fast off of heavy throttle, boo. The next generation Mustang with a V6 will produce better than 300 hp and be rated at better than 30 mpg.

    Of course, turbos can be finicky beasts so we’ll have to see about longevity and whether they keep their initial mileage.

    And then there’s actual mpg instead of the EPA cycle – which is more realistic than it used to be, but still unlikely to be matched by every driver in every car. Start with using the combined number. that’s based on a 60/40 (hwy/city) split. But if you don’t have 60% highway driving or what you do have tends towards the congested, you won’t make the combined number. And while the EPA (which doesn’t actually test the vehicles) requires some accessory usage, the manufacturers are going to test with the least amount of accessory draw on the engine that they can get away with.

    I don’t disagree with your numbers, i just don’t think that’s what we’ll see in reality for the reasons above and then some.

    I won’t get started on how bogged down modern vehicles are with safety equipment when the more elegant solution would be requiring people to actually be able to operate a motor vehicle with some proficiency.

    • I don’t see how this is one step forward, two steps back, Lex. Everything you just said is already true, today. Hell, that’s part of your point. The problems with the EPA guidelines won’t change unless the EPA upgrades how they measure fuel economy. The fact that driving less aggressively means you can hit these numbers with an old car is true today – and less aggressive driving in 2016 means that you’ll get 32-35 MPG with the light trucks of the future. None of that in any way changes the fact that, in average, new cars in 2016 will burn less fuel than today’s cars. No matter how you look at it, 28.8 MPG for a light truck in 2016 is still greater than 27.5 for a passenger car today.

      The worst thing that will happen is we’ll cut fuel consumption nationwide by about 1.3% gas instead of about 2%. It’s a small improvement, and certainly not enough over the long run, but I’m not willing to call it a step backward.

      This isn’t a magic bullet, and I’m not claiming that it is. But it’s not the empty gesture you’re implying – it will improve fuel economy no matter how much the car manufacturers try to game it. The only way it could be a step backward is if the EPA simultaneously redefines the conditions under which fuel economy is calculated to make it even less realistic than it already is. Now, if you’ve heard about the EPA doing exactly that, then please let me know – that would be a huge story.

      • It sounds to me mainly like Lex is sick of half-measures. Especially in the face of environmental implications that are rather … full-measured? I know I’m sick of hearing that “at least we got something done” or that “it’s better than nothing.” Well, that’s all true, as far as it goes. Maybe half-assed is better than completely-assed, but it’s no excuse for doing less than you should, less than you could, or less than what MUST be done.

  4. My point about one step forward after two steps back is more about what’s already been proven possible and then discarded (in favor of cocoon like comfort and safety) some time ago. And now we’re making these small improvements that are really just half-measures. On top of that, we got better mileage before the amazing material engineering advances. Valve covers, intake manifolds, etc. etc etc aren’t even made out of metal anymore; there’s not a 2×4 sized steel ladder frame underneath cars anymore.

    And yes, Sam’s right. I’m sick of half-measures, especially because the same lawmaking bodies make it impossible for me to even adopt full measures for myself. I’m not allowed to put a Kei truck on the road. Automakers with fine diesel engines for the world market don’t bring them here because it isn’t worth it to get them through all the hoops. And i’m told that i should buy a hybrid which is, by definition, a half-measure.

    As to people driving new cars for better mileage, that’s unlikely without really high gas prices. I see it every day…like waiting until you’re losing momentum half way up a hill and then stomping on the accelerator, when you could have accelerated on flat ground to build up enough momentum to make it up the hill. (There’s a big hill on my commute that if i don’t have the momentum forces me to downshift and i regularly get caught behind jackasses who force me to do so, hence this example.)

    I could make great mpg increases just by mandating that everyone drives a standard transmission unless they’re an amputee or can prove mental disability.

    • I could make great mpg increases just by mandating that everyone drives a standard transmission unless they’re an amputee or can prove mental disability.

      A significant proportion of drivers in the Denver area could easily prove mental disability. You have to be a little off to put as much hate-fuck energy into cutting people off as they do.

      If the state’s conceal-carry ordinance would let you shoot these people on sight I’d sign up today.

    • Fair enough.

      I remember being told that we had the technology to make 100 MPG cars today, but that no-one would buy the cars because they would use “unproven” tech like carbon fiber body struts, fiberglass/epoxy body molding, and would be smaller than most people would be willing to buy. If you can make aircraft and naval vessels out of carbon fiber and fiberglass, you can make a car without any trouble. And well, people are going to have to learn to like small cars sooner or later.

      Oil closed at around $87 per barrel today, and we’re coming up on the summer driving months. Given unemployment is still high and thus consumer mobility isn’t going to be as good this year as last, I wonder what’s driving oil prices. Demand from other countries, probably. Which means that we’re going to have high gas prices this summer AND a recession all at the same time. That’s not going to be fun, and it’s probably going to flatten out what little recovery we’ve actually got as the price for transported goods goes up again.

      It’s not just the lawmakers, though. There’s something to be said for the fact that US customers want to buy big, heavy, overpowered, ultraplush vehicles. Hell, I’m not even immune – I own a Honda Odyssey minivan because of carpooling kids back and forth to school in car seats. Now, if you’ve got a way to convince people who don’t need trucks or minivans to stop buying them, I’m all ears. Gas price spikes will do it, but it’ll hurt a hell of a lot across the board when (not if) that happens.

  5. Race cars are made out of carbon fiber. People crash F1 cars at 200 mph and walk away on a regular basis (ok, they don’t get hit by an SUV in an F1 car and walk away, but you get my point).

    The only way to get people to stop buying cars they don’t need is basically impossible: get them to look at driving as something worth doing instead of requiring an appliance to get from point A to point B. Good public transport would help. It’s not realistic for where i live and what i do, but i’d love to be able to commute via public transport and have a fun car for weekends and such.

    I do not understand America’s unwillingness to embrace the wagon. Anything that a minivan can do, a wagon can do with more style and fun. And anything most people ask their truck to do a wagon can do too. Once upon a time there was no such thing as a minivan, yet people managed to raise families. Once upon a time, buying a truck meant giving up some things (passengers and ride comfort) for the ability to do other things.

    We want it all. Simplicity, form following function…that’s anti-American, buddy.

    In other words, i don’t have a realistic answer for you, Brian. (I mean, we could price gasoline to include external costs like pollution and military adventures to secure raw materials, but that’s not going to happen.) But for the car culture nation, we sure seem to hate actual cars…and driving them.

    • Actually, you can’t fit two modern car seats side by side in a wagon and still have room between them for a third, older kid to sit between. Similarly, you can’t haul 4 or 5 kids back and forth from school in a wagon when three of them are in boosters or car seats in anything but a truck/minivan. Jennifer and I tried, and I’m still sad about losing my little Honda because we couldn’t do it.

      However, I took over my wife’s Outback, and it’s not too bad. Pretty zippy for a wagon with a 4 cylinder engine (the horizontally-opposed layout helps a lot with power).

  6. Sam, i think i might just go insane if i had to drive on American roads with actual traffic. I used to do it and it was ok, but most of that was in the Metro Detroit area in the early 90’s…when you’re as likely to be passed by the cop car while you’re going 95 as to be pulled over and ticketed. It even gets pretty bad for me here at times; usually the poker in the right line is what drives me crazy. I always start politely, asking, “Rechtsfahren, bitte.” But usually descends into a hail of German words you won’t find in any tourist phrase book.

    You might enjoy something i picked up in Austria for communicating driving displeasure (where a middle finger is ticketable). As you pass the jackass, give them a look and with your hand open, fingers apart, wave it back and forth in front of your face. It translates roughly as, “You’re a stupid, crazy fucking asslicker.” (or just, “You’re stupid/crazy.” depending on context)

    Hey, did either of you guys click the Kei truck link…aren’t those little bastards cool?

  7. Well, if you have 4 or 5 kids in your car because you’re transporting the team to practice, then that’s not too bad. If you have 4 or 5 kids in your car that are all your offspring, then those of us with no kids might as well go buy Hummers. All talk of reducing our impact on the planet has to start with reducing the population.

  8. More boomers approaching old age in 2016 will create a critical mass of old drivers. The only possible outcome is highway armageddon. As this reaction goes through its lifespan, the planet will start to lose more dirvers than it gains, clearing the air for us Xer’s and MEanies to dive whatever we want.
    Don’t belive the propaganda about cafe standards, they will use other devices and destractions to change what the “taste” of the market becomes. As more people fall in line with the “mini mobile putt putts”, niche sales for guzzlaz will be strong.