Politics of Big Vehicles

When they walk into showrooms ready to plunk down their hard-earned income to buy a new car, Americans choose vehicles that are larger than those sold anywhere else in the world. But political forces may dramatically limit consumers' choices forces that will cripple the domestic industry, while handing a bonanza to foreign auto makers. Driving conditions in the U.S. are vastly different from those

When they walk into showrooms ready to plunk down their hard-earned income to buy a new car, Americans choose vehicles that are larger than those sold anywhere else in the world.

But political forces may dramatically limit consumers' choices — forces that will cripple the domestic industry, while handing a bonanza to foreign auto makers.

Driving conditions in the U.S. are vastly different from those in Europe and Asia. Driving distances in America are much greater. Streets are wider. Parking spaces are bigger. We use our cars to do everything, and we use them all the time because public transportation is insufficient in all but a few major cities.

More importantly, our fuel prices are half of what they are in Europe or Japan.

But political developments in the U.S. could completely change the American market. The State of California just proposed new regulations to be phased in from 2009 to 2014 to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2)emissions by 33%.

In effect, California is telling auto makers they'll have to boost fuel economy by that amount because burning less fuel is the only way to reduce carbon dioxide. Auto makers have vowed to fight these emissions regulations in court, claiming they are fuel — economy regulations, which only the federal government can dictate.

Even if auto makers win their court battle (which I doubt they will), they face another potential challenge. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic Party candidate for president this November, favored raising corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for passenger cars to 36 mpg and trucks to 27.5 mpg.

Kerry took this stand before becoming a presidential candidate, so he may back off this position before the election so as not to frighten his union supporters. They have good reason to be frightened.

Boosting CAFE 33% is not a technological issue. Europe's new vehicle fleet currently averages 32.6 mpg for gasoline engines, and 41.2 mpg for diesel engines. But the mix of vehicles sold in Europe is overwhelmingly B and C — class cars with manual transmissions. In Japan they're mostly A and B — class cars. If you're not familiar with these letter designations, think Honda Civic and smaller.

The California Air Resources Board and John Kerry argue that American — size vehicles can easily match the fuel economy of European and Japanese — sized vehicles with available technology, with no degradation in performance and with modest cost increases.

I'm not going to argue against better fuel economy or even CO2 reduction.

But I don't buy their argument. It's a physical impossibility to achieve these standards in the timeframe given without a dramatic reduction in the type and size of vehicles that Americans buy. And that will cripple the domestic auto industry.

There are those who relish the thought of bringing Detroit to its knees. They may well succeed, but I promise you it will not be good for the country.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer and host of “Autoline Detroit,” a TV show focusing on automotive issues.

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