Government Seizing the Wheel of Automobile Design
The 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit showed how automakers are making vehicles lighter to increase their gas mileage. Automakers are substituting steel, which is what cars are largely made of, for more plastics, aluminum, magnesium, and carbon-fiber composites.
For example, Ford is testing a prototype F-150 pickup truck that features aluminum instead of steel body panels. The newly debuted Chevy Corvette features an underbody made of aluminum and a roof made of carbon-fiber composite instead of steel. Other vehicles are experimenting with aluminum roofs.
Automakers are not focusing on boosting fuel economy by choice. They are doing this because they must comply with the Obama administration’s raising of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements, which makes it illegal for them to sell vehicle fleets that fall below the federally mandated fuel economy standards. At present, the combined vehicle standards that CAFE mandates is at least 29 miles per gallon. But these mandates will increase to 35.5 mpg by 2016 and then to 54.5 mpg by 2025—nearly double the current mandate—as part of the federal government’s campaign to drastically reduce usage of fossil fuels.
The effect of rising CAFE requirements forces automakers to disregard—or subordinate—many of the other considerations that automakers would normally weigh when designing a vehicle, if that is what it takes to double fuel economy.
Can they design a spacious vehicle for drivers who need to transport a lot of stuff? The mandates would steer automakers to engineer smaller vehicles since the larger the vehicle, the lower the fuel economy tends to be.
Can they try to keep vehicle costs down for the budget-conscious purchaser? Automakers are currently trying to satisfy the standards by substituting steel components with fancier—and pricier—materials normally reserved for race cars. That adds to the cost.
Can automakers supply contractors and small business owners with a trusty pickup that can haul heavy loads? Such vehicles require bigger engines, which tend to get lower fuel economy. How would that mesh with CAFE mandates?
Can automakers cater to parents who, above all else, want a vehicle that keeps their children safe? There is good reason to believe that the lighter vehicles that the government is forcing automakers to produce are going to be less safe. Basic Newtonian mechanics teaches us that in the nightmare scenario where someone slams into your car on the highway, the lighter your vehicle, the faster and farther you are going to be flung into other lanes of traffic. And many statistical studies suggest that, in the event of a crash, there is a much greater chance of death or serious injury for those in lighter vehicles than those in heavier vehicles.
We must recognize the CAFE program for what it is: the government forcing automakers to substantially change the course of automobile design in the name of foisting an anti-fossil fuel agenda onto Americans. In a free society, unregulated car companies would offer options designed to attract buyers, and each buyer would decide for himself what value to place on fuel economy. CAFE standards deprive us of this freedom.
image: KarrMann at Wikimedia Commons