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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

CAFE Regulations

Air Date: Week of

Sport/utility vehicles, pickups, and minivans are exempt from the stringent fuel efficiency standards that apply to passenger cars — and they’re more popular than ever. A Presidential advisory panel is expected to urge that CAFE standards should apply to both, but Congress isn’t expected to embrace the idea. Julie Edelson Halper of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports on the impasse.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; Im Steve Curwood. Big cars with big engines can mean bigger profits for both the oil and car-making industries. The trouble is, they also make more pollution, and add to the US dependence on foreign oil. So, 20 years ago Congress started requiring that automobiles get better mileage. But the lawmakers left a loophole that was literally large enough to drive a truck through. While cars have to meet stringent fuel efficiency standards, trucks do not, and today's popular and highly profitable sport utility vehicles, pickups, and minivans are considered to be light trucks that don't have to conform to the strongest fuel efficiency rules. A presidential advisory panel is expected soon to urge that fuel efficiency should be improved for both trucks and cars, but Congress is not expected to embrace the idea. From Ann Arbor, Michigan, Julie Edelson Halpert of the Great Lakes Radio Consortium reports on the impasse over fuel efficiency standards.

(Traffic sounds. A car showroom. Man: "... this 1996 Grand Caravan SE are also the stainless steel exhaust system, the dual no-horn, the compact spare tire...")

HALPERT: At Arbor Dodge, salesman Charles Robinet is touting the many features of one of Chrysler's most popular vehicles, the Dodge Caravan.

ROBINET: We have cup holders in the front for the passenger and the driver...

HALPERT: But one thing Robinet doesn't mention is fuel economy. The Caravan gets 18 miles per gallon in the city and 24 miles per gallon on the highway. Probably not the kind of numbers Congress had in mind when it enacted the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program, or CAFE, back in 1975. The nation was just emerging from the oil crisis and the push to get more miles to the gallon was in high gear. CAFE required that by 1985 most cars would have to double their average miles per gallon. Automakers protested. They said the CAFE standards would force them to build pint-sized, unsafe autos. But John DeCheeko of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy says just the opposite happened. DeCheeko says CAFE resulted in better-designed cars that burn less gas and emitted fewer pollutants.

DECHEEKO: Our research indicates that the CAFE standards program has to be considered one of the energy policy's success stories of the past 2 decades. The amount of energy and petroleum in particular that has been saved by CAFE is really untouched by any other kind of initiative here in the United States or even worldwide.

HALPERT: The average fuel economy of most cars now stands at 27.5 miles to the gallon. But there's been little progress since that goal was reached 10 years ago, according to Marc Ross, a fuel economy expert at the University of Michigan. Ross says 40% of the new vehicles purchased today, including the popular minivans, are classified as light duty trucks and therefore are exempt from CAFE's toughest requirements.

ROSS: Unfortunately we're going to lose those gains because driving is increasing all the time. So in another 25 or 30 years we're going to be back where we were unless we reduce emissions per mile. And to reduce emissions per mile, one of the best ways to do that is to reduce fuel usage per mile.

HALPERT: The Clinton Administration tried to get light duty trucks to comply with tougher CAFE standards. But a provision in the new transportation bill prohibits any changes to CAFE through 1998. That news disappointed Alison Horton, director of the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club.

HORTON: Global warming has begun, and the absolute number one best thing we can do to start turning the tide there and cut back on the pollutants that go into global warming is to increase fuel efficiency.

HALPERT: But auto makers aren't convinced that increasing CAFE standards would have a dramatic effect in countering air pollution.

(A shop floor: the sounds of hydraulic tools)

HALPERT: At Chrysler's 4-million square foot technology center in Auburn Hills, Michigan, a 1996 Dodge Stratus is being tested for fuel output. This sedan gets an average of 27 miles per gallon. Eric Ridenower, director of environmental and energy planning for Chrysler, says consumers would have to pay at least an extra $1,000 per vehicle to make significant improvements in fuel economy.

RIDENOWER: Of all the cars out there only about 2% of those cars sold get better than 40 miles per gallon, because quite frankly the customers aren't looking for those type of fuel economy cars. So it's, you give up a lot -- from a car like this you'd have to either reduce the weight, either by shrinking it or by putting very advanced materials in, which will raise the cost. You've got to drop down the performance, or you've got to do something else to this vehicle to get very high fuel economy, and each of those things that you give up customers value.

HALPERT: Ridenower says a gas tax of 50 cents to $1.50 a gallon would do far more to promote fuel efficiency than new Federal regulations.

RIDENOWER: When you've got, you know, gasoline cheaper than bottled water you get, you know, people not valuing it very much. And so they tend to drive more, which is actually one of the perverse effects of CAFE, is that when you make miles per gallon better and don't change the price of fuel you actually end up with a dollars-per-mile driven much lower.

HALPERT: And so for now, with gasoline prices relatively low and consumer demand for the lower mileage minivans continuing to rise, efforts to improve fuel economy are likely to face a bumpy road ahead. The CAFE standards are up for review again in 1997. For Living on Earth, I'm Julie Edelson Halpert in Ann Arbor.



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