About the only people who seem pleased with President Barack Obama's new gas mileage and fuel emission standards are environmentalists.
Obama's new rules will require automakers to produce a fleet of vehicles that have an overall average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. The president's reworking of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) laws essentially moves up the deadline for this standard by four years. Between 2012 -- the first model year for the program -- and 2016, the president wants to see an average annual increase in fuel efficiency of 5 percent.
Many outside the environmental community worry that automakers may not be able to meet the president's deadline, and if they do, American car buyers won't provide a significant enough return on the industry's investment. There are also concerns about the effect such fuel efficiency standards will have on vehicle safety. According to the Heritage Foundation, improving fuel efficiency to the degree Obama desires will require cars and trucks to be lighter, which means they'll be more dangerous in collisions.
There are also concerns about the timing of the president's announcement as well. President Bush outlined a more ambitious plan in 2008, but the hefty $50 billion price tag and its impact on the American auto industry forced the administration to abandon the plan.
Currently, no auto manufacturer meets the 2016 standards, and only Toyota and Honda are less than 10 miles-per-gallon away from the president's goals. Part of the problem is that the cars Americans want to buy aren't economic to drive. Large families require larger vehicles, meaning smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles aren't practical and larger more fuel-efficient vehicles aren't affordable. And while Obama maintains that the more expensive green automobiles cost less in the long run, consumers who see the additional $1,300 added on to the price tag (that's the estimated cost per vehicle of meeting the president's goals) will look for a cheaper alternative.
The annual rise in summer gas prices also could complicate the president's avowal of long-term savings with green vehicles. In the past month, fuel prices have risen by 25 percent, and every summer they get higher than the preceeding year. If 2009 prices reach the levels they did in 2008, even the most economic and fuel efficient vehicles won't save consumers money.
Studies show that regardless of the vehicle used (hybrid or otherwise), the best gas mileage comes when people adjust their driving habits. Reducing or eliminating aggressive driving, using cruise control and avoiding excessive idling are all ways to improve fuel economy. And of course, Obama's famous campaign line about driving with properly inflated tires also helps.
The best way for Americans to save money on fuel, however, is for fuel prices to remain low. Placing the burden of reducing fuel costs solely on auto manufacturers isn't enough. Obama should also be working with domestic oil producers to find ways to lower costs for the consumer and negotiating costs with foreign suppliers before summer prices go wildly out of control (again). Working with domestic companies, however, is preferable because it not only lessens US dependence on foreign oil, it also reduces the stress on automakers and generates jobs in the bargain.
Obama couldn't have picked a worse time to keep his promise to environmentalists. The president's tough new fuel efficiency standards will force American auto manufacturers to spend more money when they can least afford it, and raise prices on consumers when they can least afford it.
Let's just hope the president's liberal idealism doesn't drive a sake into the heart of the Detroit auto industry once and for all.
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