At Witz’ End: No Free Lunch at CAFE



There are those who understand and accept the laws of physics, and those who don’t. Unfortunately, the latter group is a vast majority with no technical education or experience and clearly includes every lawmaker, environmentalist, and media member who believes that CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) needs to be substantially increased.

To believe that, these technically challenged people must believe: 1) that U.S. automakers continue to lag behind imports in fuel efficiency, 2) that they are withholding fuel economy technology that would make everyone’s vehicles far more fuel efficient than they are today, but otherwise unchanged 3) that they must be forced to provide the higher mileage their customers demand, and 4) that 40-50-mpg vehicles – even if technically feasible – will offer the same features and capabilities at the same prices as today’s 20-30-mpg cars and trucks.


But those armed with engineering knowledge and facts know the unfortunate truth.


Domestic makers can offer real data proving otherwise all day long, but people believe what they want to believe. And for some masochistic reason, they still want to believe their home teams are losing. Yes, at the dawn of CAFE in the wake of the 1970s fuel crises, American cars were less fuel efficient than European and Japanese models because they were bigger and heavier, and because fuel economy was not a high priority with U.S.-market gas ridiculously cheap. Today, with domestics selling plenty of excellent small cars and off-shore brands marketing more and more large, heavy luxury cars and trucks, that is not even remotely true. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, fuel economy is a top priority for everyone, everyone is competitive and any differences between competing vehicles are small.


There is no magic technology…and if there were, why would American makers withhold it when superior fuel economy is a HUGE competitive advantage? And why would anyone with half a brain believe that any business must be forced to provide what its customers demand?


Fuel efficiency is mostly about weight. Depending on the rate of acceleration, it takes x amount of energy to accelerate y mass to z speed. Once it reaches that speed, aerodynamics play a major role because slipperier shapes require less energy to part the air. No one should be surprised that big, heavy, brick-shaped trucks burn a lot more fuel than small, light, sleekly shaped cars. Driving style (jerky/aggressive vs. smooth and gentle), tire rolling resistance, accessory loads, and even powertrain technology play much a smaller roles. Increasing efficiency through expensive technology usually adds more cost than benefit at U.S. gas prices. Smaller displacement reduces performance and load capability with little economy benefit, since a smaller engine works much harder than a larger one to pull the same load.


Engineers can reduce a vehicle's fuel consumption primarily by reducing its size and weight and secondarily by streamlining its body. Beyond these major factors, what remains are incremental enhancements in powertrain and vehicle efficiency. But the easiest and most affordable improvements were made long ago. What remains are measures worth fractions of miles per gallon at much higher costs.


Cars and trucks weigh what they do primarily because of their capabilities. They are the size and weight they are to carry what they do, perform as they do, tow what they can, and protect occupants in crashes as well as they do, at a given price level. A higher-economy SUV, for example, is by definition smaller and less capable. What combination of features and capabilities are buyers willing to sacrifice for higher efficiency: Cargo capacity? Off-road or all-weather capability? Towing capability? Roominess? Ride? Occupant protection? Affordability?


CAFE mandates the sales-weighted average economy of the total “fleets” of cars and trucks each company sells each year. It therefore reflects the “mix” of vehicles – the proportion of smaller to larger ones – an automaker sells, not the efficiency of individual vehicles within that mix. A full-line automaker naturally has a lower CAFE than most smaller companies because it sells more larger cars and trucks. To meaningfully raise its CAFE, an automaker has to downsize its mix of vehicles by convincing its customers to buy more, smaller, more fuel-efficient models and fewer of the larger, less efficient ones most Americans prefer.


"If you want people to eat less, you raise the price of food," GM Product Development Vice Chairman Bob Lutz once sagely said. "Instead, what the government is trying to do with CAFE is fight national obesity by making the clothing industry manufacture only small sizes."


Those who naively push for higher CAFE believe they'll get 50-mpg cars and 40-mpg SUVs with the same safety and capability they enjoy today at about the same price. They think they can have something for nothing – the proverbial “free lunch” – because they desperately want it. Ain't gonna happen, folks, because no one has figured out how to repeal those pesky laws of physics. What they'll get with higher CAFE is exactly what most Americans do not want – vehicles that are much smaller, lighter, less capable, less safe, and more expensive.


Contrary to what politicians and the popular press want us to believe – and as much as we all wish there were – there is no free lunch at this CAFE.

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