may soon decide to increase the standards for fuel economy imposed on
manufacturers of vehicles sold in the United States. This would be a mistake.
1975, Congress reacted to the 1973 oil embargo imposed by the
Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) by establishing
the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Program as part of the Energy
Policy and Conservation Act. The goal of the program was to reduce U.S.
dependence on imported oil and consumption of gasoline. Advocates also
hoped it would improve air quality. But the evidence shows that it has
failed to meet its goals; worse, it has had unintended consequences
that increase the risk of injury to Americans. Instead of perpetuating
such a program, Congress should consider repealing the CAFE standards
and finding new market-based solutions to reduce high gasoline
consumption and rising prices.
is significant pressure on Members of Congress, however, not only to
continue this failed program, but also to raise fuel efficiency
standards even higher. The current CAFE standards require auto
manufacturers selling in the United States to meet certain fuel economy
levels for their fleets of new cars and light trucks (pickups,
minivans, and sport utility vehicles, or SUVs). The standard for
passenger cars is currently 27.5 miles per gallon; for light trucks, it
is 20.7 mpg.
face stiff fines for failing to meet these standards based on the total
number of vehicles in each class sold, but compliance is taken out of
their hands. The government measures compliance by calculating a
sales-weighted mean of the fuel economies for the fleets of new cars
and light trucks a manufacturer sells each year, and it measures
domestically produced and imported vehicles separately.
the CAFE program has failed to accomplish its purposes. Oil imports
have not decreased. In fact, they have increased from about 35 percent
of supply in the mid-1970s to 52 percent today. Likewise, consumption
has not decreased. As fuel efficiency improves, consumers have
generally increased their driving, offsetting nearly all the gains in
Not only has the CAFE program failed to meet its goals; it has had
tragic even if unintended consequences. As vehicles were being made
lighter to achieve more miles per gallon and meet the standards, the
number of fatalities from crashes rose.
should stop distorting the marketplace with unwise policies and
convoluted regulations and allow the market to respond to consumer
demand for passenger vehicles. In addition to free-market
considerations, there are other compelling reasons to reject the CAFE
standards. For example:
- CAFE standards endanger human lives;
- CAFE standards fail to reduce consumption; and
- CAFE standards do not improve the environment.
HOW CAFE INCREASES RISKS TO MOTORISTS
evidence is overwhelming that CAFE standards result in more highway
deaths. A 1999 USA TODAY analysis of crash data and estimates from the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance
Institute for Highway Safety found that, in the years since CAFE
standards were mandated under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of
1975, about 46,000 people have died in crashes that they would have
survived if they had been traveling in bigger, heavier cars. This translates into 7,700 deaths for every mile per gallon gained by the standards.
CAFE standards do not mandate that manufacturers make small cars, they
have had a significant effect on the designs manufacturers
adopt--generally, the weights of passenger vehicles have been falling.
Producing smaller, lightweight vehicles that can perform satisfactorily
using low-power, fuel-efficient engines is the most affordable way for
automakers to meet the CAFE standards.
than 25 years ago, research established that drivers of larger, heavier
cars have lower risks in crashes than do drivers of smaller, lighter
A 2000 study by Leonard Evans, now the president of the Science Serving
Society in Michigan, found that adding a passenger to one of two
identical cars involved in a two-car frontal crash reduces the driver
fatality risk by 7.5 percent. If the cars differ in mass by more than a passenger's weight, adding a passenger to the lighter car will reduce total risk.
Evans findings reinforce a 1989 study by economists Robert Crandall of
the Brookings Institution and John Graham of the Harvard School of
Public Health, who found that the weight of the average American
automobile has been reduced 23 percent since 1974, much of this
reduction a result of CAFE regulations.
Crandall and Graham stated that "the negative relationship between
weight and occupant fatality risk is one of the most secure findings in
the safety literature."
University's John Graham reiterated the safety risks of weight
reduction in correspondence with then-U.S. Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO)
in June 2000. Graham was responding to a May 2000 letter distributed to
Members of the House from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient
Economy (ACEEE) and the Center for Auto Safety.
Graham sought to correct its misleading statements, such as its
discussion of weight reduction as a compliance strategy without
reference to the safety risks associated with the use of lighter steel.
For example, an SUV may be more likely to roll over if it is
constructed with lighter materials, and drivers of vehicles that crash
into guardrails are generally safer when their vehicle contains more
mass rather than less. Further, according to Graham, government studies
have found that making small cars heavier has seven times the safety
benefit than making light trucks lighter.
evidence clearly shows that smaller cars have significant disadvantages
in crashes. They have less space to absorb crash forces. The less the
car absorbs, the more the people inside the vehicle must absorb.
Consequently, the weight and size reductions resulting from the CAFE
standards are linked with the 46,000 deaths through 1998 mentioned
above, as well as thousands of injuries. It is time that policymakers
stop defending the failed CAFE program and start valuing human lives by
repealing the standards.
WHY CAFE FAILS TO REDUCE CONSUMPTION
of higher CAFE standards argue that increasing miles per gallon will
reduce gas consumption. What they fail to mention is the well-known
"rebound effect"--greater energy efficiency leads to greater energy
consumption. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal noted that in
the 19th century, British economist Stanley Jevons found that coal
consumption initially decreased by one-third after James Watt's new,
efficient steam engine began replacing older, more energy-hungry
But in the ensuing years (1830 to 1863), consumption increased
tenfold--the engines were cheaper to run and thus were used more often
than the older, less efficient models. In short, greater efficiency
produced more energy use, not less.
same principle applies to CAFE standards. A more fuel-efficient vehicle
costs less to drive per mile, so vehicle mileage increases. As the
author of The Wall Street Journal article notes, "[s]ince 1970, the
United States has made cars almost 50% more efficient; in that period
of time, the average number of miles a person drives has doubled." This increase certainly offsets a portion of the gains made in fuel efficiency from government mandated standards.
WHY CAFE STANDARDS DO NOT IMPROVE THE ENVIRONMENT
of higher CAFE standards contend that increasing fuel economy
requirements for new cars and trucks will improve the environment by
causing less pollution. This is incorrect.
regulations impose emissions standards for cars and light trucks,
respectively. These standards are identical for every car or light
truck in those two classes regardless of their fuel economy. These
limits are stated in grams per mile of acceptable pollution, not in
grams per gallon of fuel burned. Accordingly, a Lincoln Town Car with a
V-8 engine may not by law emit more emissions in a mile, or 10 miles,
or 1,000 miles, than a Chevrolet Metro with a three-cylinder engine.
noted by the National Research Council (NRC) in a 1992 report on
automobile fuel economy, "Fuel economy improvements will not directly
affect vehicle emissions." In fact, the NRC found that higher fuel economy standards could actually have a negative effect on the environment:
vehicle fuel economy will have indirect environmental impacts. For
example, replacing the cast iron and steel components of vehicles with
lighter weight materials (e.g., aluminum, plastics, or composites) may
reduce fuel consumption but would generate a different set of
environmental impacts, as well as result in different kinds of indirect
will increasing CAFE standards halt the alleged problem of "global
warming." Cars and light trucks subject to fuel economy standards make
up only 1.5 percent of all global man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
According to data published in 1991 by the Office of Technology
A 40 percent
increase in fuel economy standards would reduce greenhouse emissions by
only about 0.5 percent, even under the most optimistic assumptions.
NRC additionally noted that "greenhouse gas emissions from the
production of substitute materials, such as aluminum, could
substantially offset decreases of those emissions achieved through
improved fuel economy."
CAFE program has failed to achieve its goals. Since its inception, both
oil imports and vehicle miles driven have increased while the standards
have led to reduced consumer choice and lives lost that could have
survived car crashes in heavier vehicles.
CAFE standards should not be increased. They should be repealed and
replaced with free market strategies. Consumers respond to market
signals. As past experience shows, competition can lead to a market
that makes gas guzzlers less attractive than safer and more
fuel-efficient vehicles. That is the right way to foster energy
Charli E. Coon, J.D.,
is Senior Policy Analyst for Energy and the Environment in the Thomas
A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.