Are higher CAFE standards what we need?

I got an email from my cousin the other day, which I quote herewith: When a woman wears leather clothing, a man’s heart beats a little quicker, his throat gets dry, he goes weak in the knees, and he begins to think irrationally — because she smells like a new truck!

In the United States, guys (and girls, too) have a great love for big, tow capable trucks, including SUV’s. I read recently that these have even supplanted luxury sedans for lust in many hearts. This is particularly true among boaters and us in the boating trades. Our financial welfare frequently depends on there being a fleet of safe and competent vehicles to move boats about. Right now, more than 80 percent of 17 million boats depend on towing to one degree or another. These boats aren’t getting any lighter. In fact, when you combine the rise in engine weight, due to the shift to four strokes and diesels, with “2-foot-itis,” they are gaining weight just like the rest of us.

Today, legislative proposals regularly surface to improve the economy of the fleet by placing more and more vehicles under CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency) requirements and then to increase said requirements with regard to minimum acceptable mileage. I made the mistake of asking Marine Retailers Association of America Washington liaison Larry Innis, who has worked tirelessly for many years on this issue, for some CAFE background information. Good and knowledgeable guy that he is, he immediately e-mailed me a judiciously chosen sampling of that city’s finest product — federal paperwork. I just told the computer to print — and used up my next three month’s allotment of paper. My wife keeps track of waste far better than the government.

It’s been a really long time since I sat in an economics class, and it wasn’t my best subject, ever. I seem to recall both the texts and the professors having a high degree of confidence in the market place to decide product design trade-offs like towing ability vs. fuel economy. I don’t think things have changed much. We all still “vote” with our dollars. I can understand federal mandates on air pollution. The downside of driving a polluting vehicle is too remote to influence a selfish market. For fuel use, this just ain’t so. Gratification, or the lack of it, is as immediate as your next fill-up.

Larry warns MRAA members that Congress will be likely to look at significantly increasing CAFE standards for pickups and SUV’s next year. The recent decline in SUV sales and closure of their manufacturing plants doesn’t help us, but it indicates that the marketplace is already working without input from CAFE.

This became significantly evident to me back when gas spiked above $3 per gallon. However, the truth in the theory has always been obvious in Europe — where fuel is frequently more than double even our spike. I remember renting cars there that didn’t weigh a lot more than the passenger load and with engines that were no bigger than a small overnight case. These were quite adequate to move me from A to B if I wasn’t too picky about acceleration and hill climbing.

With the recent fuel price spike, my wife and I began traveling in a more efficient vehicle than our 3¼4 ton. At the boat yard, we run errands in a smaller vehicle and leave the big pickups for towing. I think these are the things that need to happen if we are to reduce our dependence on foreign oil without ruining our own economic engines. With the CAFE rules tightening, automobile companies can make plenty of vehicles that get high mileage but don’t get the recreational towing or hauling jobs done. We seem in imminent danger of reaching a point where there is a major economic disincentive or even a federal prohibition on producing vehicles capable of towing boats beyond 16-to-17 feet. This is likely to be true even if you were willing to pay luxury vehicle prices for them — which most of us aren’t.

We are starting to use the big stuff only when it is needed. Legislation is a crude way to solve fuel problems compared to the time-tested elegance of the marketplace.

If fuel prices need to be high to effect the proper economic “whack on the head” to the public, legislate a replacement fuel tax structure that varies inversely with the wholesale cost of fuel. That would stabilize pump prices, which is a good thing no matter what the level. Government would take the short-term risks and make the short-term windfalls. They can better afford it, and the pressure of the market would be inexorable rather than applied in “fits and starts.” I think we have all seen that the lack of fuel rather than its price is the blow that can devastate our industry.

We are capable as a citizenry, when properly motivated, of developing far better solutions to the fuel problem than the elaborately and clumsy CAFE rules juggling. The marketplace works. Let it! Tinker with it fearfully, not with relish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *