SAFE: A Sane Approach to US Consumer Vehicle Fuel Efficiency
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards have governed automakers’ fleets since 1975, when they were devised to prevent a repeat of petroleum shortages caused by the Arab Oil Embargo (’73-’74). While higher fuel economy is a vestigial theme in CAFE, the standard setting process is regularly hijacked by environmental activists to achieve government control over consumer vehicle choices, and thereby, over vehicle emissions.
In 2012, NHTSA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued joint standards for 2017–2025, with NHTSA continuing to focus on fuel efficiency and the EPA targeting reductions in carbon dioxide emissions (greenhouse gas emissions). The CAFE standard for consumer and light duty trucks has steadily increased from 18 miles-per-gallon (mpg) in 1978, to 30.2 mpg in 2011, to 41 in 2021, and 54.5 by 2025. The ever-increasing target for fuel efficiency has made it difficult for automobile makers to meet NHTSA demands.
By imposing a cap across the entire fleet-year of an automaker, regulators have forced automakers to build, promote, and even subsidize smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. That assigns a notional obligation for consumers to do their part in controlling greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing small, hybrid, or electric cars.
While consumers are enthusiastic supporters of environmental protection, they are not buying NHTSA’s cynical small car scam. These high mpg cars are expensive, and they typically are hybrids or electrics with a short driving range and a lengthy recharge period. They are also small and unsuited to carrying more than four people or the “normal” cargo of a light truck.
The high mpg cars may suit city-dwellers who need transport for short trips, but they usually do not meet the needs of suburban and rural consumers or small business owners who need to haul equipment and materials to worksites. Furthermore, many of the high mpg cars provide less forward visibility and crash-protection than many of us expect.
NHTSA is now awake and making progress on behalf of consumers. NHTSA’s and EPA’s latest joint proposal, Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule, would virtually freeze the current CAFE standards. That will achieve better alignment with its quest for fuel efficiency and environmental sanity.
This action also respects the consumer’s focus on vehicle functionality and cost. This is not a roll-back of efficiency or environmental progress already made.
NHTSA’s and EPA’s proposed SAFE Vehicles Rule would reduce average vehicle ownership cost by $2,340, reduce crash fatalities by 12,000 by 2029, cut regulatory costs by $252.6 billion over a decade, and cut the number of hybrid vehicles required to meet mileage standards from 56% to 3% by 2030. Those benefits would be made at de minimis increase in greenhouse gas and pollutants over the next decade.
In comparison with the CAFE standards that had been scheduled for effect out as far as 2025, the SAFE Rules would create a 3/1,000ths of a degree Celsius increase in global average temperature in 2100, and 8/100ths of a percent increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration in 2100, but no noticeable impact to net emissions of smog-production or toxic air pollution.
Government agencies are often criticized for their regulations, but with SAFE, NHTSA has taken the high road in balancing consumer interests and economic sanity. It is consumer friendly and deserves our support.
Alan Daley and Krisztina Pusok write for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.theAmericanConsumer.Org.