The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Fuel efficiency:
Automakers cry all the way to the bank

Apr 15, 2002

Do you like breathing polluted air from car exhaust? Do you enjoy paying more and more for gas-guzzling vehicles? Thanks go to Congress, assisted by the Bush administration. They recently voted down a bill to increase the CAFE, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy.

The defeated bill, even if it had passed, would not have forced automakers to improve fuel efficiency by much – and not until the year 2013! But the threat of it had automakers lobbying Congress, moaning they would be ruined economically if the CAFE went up: they threatened to close plants and lay off auto workers.

This is an old and familiar song, the same one the automakers sang in the early 1970s, when the CAFE was first implemented. Yet despite their whining, fuel efficiency jumped from an average of about 15 miles per gallon to about 25 miles per gallon between 1975 and 1983. Automakers were not ruined and sales did not decline. The auto industry was manufacturing more vehicles than ever.

But in the last 10 years, automakers found a method to make the CAFE decline, despite technological advances which had allowed fuel efficiency to improve very quickly. The car manufacturers got Congress to agree in 1985 to exempt vehicles known as “light trucks” from the CAFE, on the grounds that these vehicles were used by farmers and small businesses that could not afford what it would cost for better fuel mileage.

Then an amazing thing happened: the sale of “light trucks” and any other vehicle the car manufacturers could slide into that category started climbing right through the roof. The so-called sports utility vehicle became the most popular selling car of the 1990s. The now popular Chrysler PT Cruiser was another vehicle exempted from the CAFE standards, with the ridiculous excuse that it was a “light truck.”

Automakers spent multi-millions to convince us that the SUV would give us a whole new life style. They suppressed the manufacture of station wagons, which had previously filled the job of hauling around families with lots of kids or groceries. And they leaned on their friends at the National Highway Safety Board to ignore the mounting evidence that SUVs were inherently unsafe from the moment they were designed. Growing sales of these heavier vehicles, which guzzled gas, pushed down the overall fuel efficiency.

What Congress has done is to agree to yet another “study” which will appear a few years down the road – to tell us what we already know: it is possible to make cars more safely and more fuel efficiently. The designs already exist for cars which get 50 or 60 or 70 miles to the gallon.

So it is possible to drive vehicles that do less damage to the air, to the roads, to our health and to our pocketbooks. But we won’t be seeing ads for them any time soon. Why? It’s simple. The profits on gas-guzzlers are outstanding. A sale of the Ford Expedition is said to bring in $18,000 per vehicle in PROFIT. And those are the only corporate standards that Congress is interested in.