It was déjà vu all over again last month, as automakers revived old habits of fighting against common-sense national standards that benefit America’s driving public.
Car companies fought seat belt and airbag requirements years ago, claiming they were too expensive. In reality, these safety measures saved lives without hurting the bottom line. And now there’s something of a safety-equipment arms race, where advanced safety features have become selling points.
This time around, automakers are fighting fuel-economy standards. These are miles-per-gallon targets that automotive executives stood in the Rose Garden and signed off on in 2009. In return, the government committed to a mid-term review, to double-check that the standards were working. And now it’s time for the review.
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The automakers are building cars and trucks that meet the fuel-economy standards out to 2020 and sales are booming, but car companies are trying to weaken the standards anyway.
Along with representatives from automakers, I represented the Consumer Federation of America at a U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in September. CFA has studied fuel economy rules for years, from the perspective of families, businesses and organizations that buy or lease cars and trucks. We’ve run the numbers time and again, to calculate the pocketbook effects of different mpg scenarios. And we’ve polled consumers across the country.
Our results consistently show that strong Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards benefit consumers. Our calculations show that up-front costs are more than offset by savings. For the typical consumer who finances the purchase, the reduction in gasoline expenditures is larger than the increase in the loan payment from the first month. That’s true even when gas prices are relatively low. And our surveys show that Americans shopping for cars pay attention to gas mileage, and highly value the ability to go farther on every gallon of gas.
For lower-income consumers, who tend to buy used vehicles, the proliferation of fuel-efficient vehicles has turned out to be a real benefit as well.
At the other end of the income spectrum are buyers with disposable income. At the hearing, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, chairman of the panel’s Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade subcommittee, talked about getting on a waiting list when the first hybrid cars became available, because he found the technology fascinating.
In his next breath, he declared that government should get out of the way and let the marketplace do everything.
I pointed out that the main reason hybrids hit the market as early as they did was California’s Low Emission Vehicle program. The program was designed to address the state’s air quality problems and was adopted by a dozen other states. It incentivized automakers to develop and sell hybrids.
California now has the Zero Emission Vehicle program, and it’s helping drive the success of electric vehicles.
You wouldn’t know it from the Capitol Hill hearing, where automakers complained about California’s zero-emission requirements, but sales of electric vehicles have significantly outpaced the sales of hybrids during their first years on the market.
CFA surveys show that consumers – especially young adults – are increasingly interested in buying electric vehicles, and this year 13 car companies are offering at least one electric option.
California’s ZEV program is federalism at its best: the state is a test-bed for automotive innovation, and we’re seeing the emergence of some of the cleanest vehicles on the planet.
Automakers are fighting fuel-economy standards and Zero Emission Vehicle rules, just as they cried wolf about seat belts and air bags. National standards on safety and efficiency have a proven history of advancing technology while attracting and benefiting consumers – with the automotive industry growing as a result.
Mark Cooper is director of research for the Consumer Federation of America. Contact him at email@example.com.