Tougher CAFE standards won't make a dent in US oil consumption because those with more fuel-efficient cars tend to drive more.
As an environmentalist, I was among the first to get a hybrid car, which helped me be among the first to admit that government-imposed fuel standards – known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) – don't work.
Before I bought my 2001 Toyota Prius (which gets 46 m.p.g.), I drove my old, low-mileage Suzuki rarely because I wanted to save on gas and pollution. I opted to commute as much as possible on my bicycle, as well as ride it for pleasure. Then I picked up the Prius, and before I knew it, I seemed to be driving everywhere.
I was proof of economist David Greene's "rebound effect" – that buyers of high-mileage vehicles drive more. With high-mileage cars, we pollute less per mile, but we cancel that benefit by spending more time behind the wheel. But with the rebound effect in mind and a son who was serving in Iraq, I cut back my driving to roughly its previous level. I am in the minority, however. The fact is that after more than 30 years of CAFE, oil consumption, pollution, and traffic congestion have soared, and automakers have found ways around the tightest standards.
Sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), for example, are "a truck without the benefit of being a truck," says a good-old-boy mechanic friend. His description is apt because SUVs are built on truck chassis and are therefore subject to lower fuel-economy standards. SUVs were almost certainly a reaction to CAFE because although customers liked larger cars, automakers found it difficult to build models that complied with CAFE.
CAFE today forces manufacturers of true cars to try the latest fuel-efficiency technology, which sometimes increases cars' sales prices. That pushes some drivers to buy SUVs or to keep older, less fuel-efficient vehicles for longer, rendering CAFE toothless.