When the Obama administration announced in August its plans to increase fuel economy standards to the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks, all eyes were on the lofty goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, saving consumers money at the gas pump and reducing U.S. dependency on foreign oil. But the problems with practically doubling the fuel efficiency standards, some experts say, have unintended consequences, such as reducing vehicle safety and, ironically, hurting the environment.
The mpg regulations, called the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, were established by Congress in 1975 in response to the oil embargoes and energy crisis of the times. The goal was simply to reduce energy consumption by increasing the fuel economy of cars and light trucks. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration adjusted the regulations over the years and then set the average mpg for car manufacturers' new car fleets at 27.5 mpg for two decades.
Now, the administration's jump to 54.4 mpg by 2025 worries a former car company attorney, Robert E. Norton. One of the ways manufacturers can improve mpg is by making smaller, lighter cars — cars that Norton says won't fare well against larger cars and trucks on the road.
"The bigger vehicle wins in the collisions," says Norton, a former attorney and consultant for car part manufacturers and car companies like Chrysler. Now, as vice president for external affairs at the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Norton is concerned about the implications of federal regulations requiring car manufacturers to increase their fleet average mpg.
Over time, regulatory and public concerns about automobiles has shifted. At first, Norton says, the main concern was safety — something pushed by Ralph Nader. Then, in the 1970s, oil embargoes and high gasoline prices brought fuel efficiency to the fore. CAFE standards were introduced in 1975 and car manufacturers struggled to raise their fleets' average miles per gallon. The standards exempted trucks, which saw the rise of the popularity of SUVs for people who wanted more space.
Then environmental concerns took the driver's seat — now heightened by efforts to reduce human contributions to global warming.
But not every environmentalist sees CAFE standards for higher mpg as making environmental sense.
Ozzie Zehner says the CAFE standards are open to politics and a lot of manipulation.
"There are so many loopholes and exclusions that the actual miles per gallon won't increase as much as people think they will," says Zehner, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and the author of "Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism."
The regulations will improve average mpg for cars and light trucks, but Zehner says the figure is manipulated. It isn't a real average because the rules will allow manufacturers to use many different credits and adjustments to reach the target mpg. For example, electric cars and bio-fuel capable cars will have imputed mpg levels that improve the overall fleet average.
These invented mpg levels and credits are why Norton calls the new mpg goals "fictitious." He says setting a high number like 54.5 mpg sounds like good news, but he doesn't think combustion engine cars are going to get anywhere near that mpg.
"But to even start moving to an average of 52 mpg," Norton says, "even with the extra credit from electric cars, you've got to take the cars a long way from where they are now."
Reducing weight across a manufacturer's whole car and light truck fleet means those cars will have to compete with larger, heavier vehicles. In a crash, that can be deadly. Michael Anderson and Maximilian Auffhammer at the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when a car is hit by a vehicle that is 1,000 pounds heavier, there is a 47 percent increase in the probability of fatality.
Zehner says there are also other problems that come from just looking at mpg when trying to reduce energy consumption and improve the environment.
Energy rebound effect
To understand one side effect of making more fuel-efficient vehicles in the 21st century, people need to look at a similar attempt in the 19th century. In 1865, William Stanley Jevons studied the efficiency of steam engines. As efficiency increased (getting more power from a steam engine while using less coal) he discovered more coal was being used. Increasing efficiency made the use of the energy cheaper, so more steam engines were used for more purposes and for longer periods of time.
This paradox is called the energy rebound effect. Making something more fuel efficient reduces the cost of using fuel. If it costs less to use fuel, then more fuel will be used.
"If you do increase the energy efficiency of cars," Zehner says, "then, all else equal, you could see an increase in automotive use."
And that increase could offset any societal savings in energy use, pollution, etc.
However, Zehner says, that rebound effect may not materialize if the price of energy increases for other reasons (scarcity, taxes, etc.).
"But it is difficult to predict," he says.
What concerns Zehner most is the narrow focus on better fuel efficiency, and not the other energy used to manufacture a car when it's not in use, which includes the mining required for iron and other materials used to build cars, or chemicals leaching into the ground from cars rusting in landfills.
As cars slim down to meet mpg standards, rare materials are needed such as magnesium or carbon-fiber composites.
"One of the reasons (green) vehicles are so expensive is largely a reflection of the fossil fuels that go into building those cars," Zehner says. "They are not expensive because they are green; they are expensive because they are energy intensive to build."
In other words, they are not really green.
"You can't say this much gasoline is equal to this much pollution in another country where they are manufacturing batteries," Zehner says. "There is no way to do it. It is a limitation that isn't the fault of any individual or group. It is just the way it is."
Norton sees things in a less environmental light. He says he worries that the push for better mpg will result in cars that are less safe and just as expensive.
"Now your vehicle is going to be smaller and it is going to cost you as much as a larger vehicle," Norton says. "And it is not as safe."
So far, overall fatality rates haven't been rising from smaller cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 2011 saw 30,246 people die in crashes — the lowest number of total motor vehicle crash fatalities since 1949.
But safety isn't the only concern Norton has. If the new vehicles are smaller, he says that means less comfort.
"In my case we have a family of five and a dog," he says. "We are just not going to fit in a Prius — especially if we are going to go camping. What are you going to do, get a convoy of cars? Two or three cars to go off and see Yellowstone together?"
And how will people haul their RVs around?
"Or have we just decided that industry must die?" he says. "Did we have a public hearing on that first before we erected the gallows?"
Zehner also wants a broader public debate — one that looks at actions that would have greater real environmental impact. To him this means looking at zoning, how cities and transportation structures are built. "It is about how people get to work," he says. "Encouraging bicycling and walking. Rapid bus transit. That would create a huge difference."