Opinion: Public Wants 60 MPG Cars, But Don't Listen To Them

Americans often say they want higher fuel economy, and then don't buy the vehicles

Americans in the Midwest of all political persuasions say they'd support a minimum 60 mpg fuel economy standard by 2025, says an environmental group that conducted a survey this month.

The 60 mpg figure has come up several times in the past few months as automakers, lobbying groups and government officials try to set new standards for the future. New fuel economy figures are due out Sept. 1 from the federal government.

Ceres, a two-decade-old non-profit environmental group founded in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill, says bipartisan voters in Ohio and Michigan say they want to see 60 mpg as the new fuel economy standard.

"In a democracy, public opinion should matter," says Mark Mellman, CEO and president of The Mellmann Group, which conducted the survey of 1,600 voters in the Heartland.

But what consumers say in surveys is very often the exact opposite of how they behave in a new car showroom. People say they want better fuel economy, but when it comes time to choose between paying an extra $3,000 for a hybrid system or getting a bigger car with heated leather seats and a Bose sound system, their dreams of driving green often evaporate.

Opposition to a 60 mpg standard will be met with catcalls from environmentalists. Indeed, the findings of apparent public support put the auto industry in the unpopular and politically incorrect position of saying no to this noble goal. The industry has an illustrious and pock-marked tradition of pushing back against environmental and safety mandates -- safety belts, airbags and higher fuel economy -- that clearly benefit society and the planet.

But on this one, they might be right.

Without standards like CAFE, which was passed in 1977, the industry has been loath to increase fuel economy on its own. Average fuel economy remained about flat from the early 1980s until the late 2000s when those figures started creeping up. New federal mandates, which the industry also opposed, call for the industry to have a minimum 34.1 mpg by 2016.

And, as could have been predicted, fuel economy has started to improve as the industry works to reach that goal. We are seeing more cars topping 40 mpg in highway driving, and 30 mpg in combined city/highway driving, than ever before. The new Ford Explorer is much more fuel efficient than the old one, and is selling much better than the old model did in the last few years. The new Subaru Impreza has jumped from highway mileage in the mid-20s to the mid-30s, using every engineering trick available to hit those numbers.

But amidst the progress, the 34.1 mpg goal is a stretch. There are concerns that people won't want to pay for the added technology -- hybrid systems, direct injection engines, turbo chargers and stop-start systems that shut an engine down at idle and stop-lights -- needed to get to a 34.1 average.

Pushing for 60 mpg sounds like a good idea. It would wean us off our addiction on foreign oil, and could help improve national security as we became less dependent on getting oil from places where people hate us.

Automakers can build a car that gets 60 mpg, but few would choose it for the family ride.

Automakers would have to contort car designs, and would fill up showrooms with tiny, really expensive vehicles. Given that the most popular vehicle in the U.S. has been the Ford F-150 pickup for 34 years in a row, there's no evidence Americans want tiny cars. The smart fortwo has been a bust in the U.S., and has never made any money for automaker Daimler. And every time gas prices slip below $3.50 per gallon, sales of all small cars soften up almost overnight.

Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the lobbying group Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, says a 60 mpg mandate would essentially mean all cars would have to be electric cars.

She has a point: The smallest car Kia Motors sells, the Rio subcompact, will get maybe 50 mpg on the highway when it debuts this fall. It has all the gas saving bells and whistles except an electric or hybrid drivetrain, which would add between $5,000 and $12,000 to its cost.

Given that electric cars only hit the market this December, it's unclear where we'll be with that technology in 13 years. The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are certainly cool, but they have their limitations. The Volt only seats four people, because its large battery cuts the back seat in half. The Leaf can only go 100 miles at best (and often less) because it doesn't have a gas backup, so it rules out a large segment of the population who like to drive their cars farther than 45 minutes from home (because you need to save battery power to get back.)

The 60 mpg average goal that would be set for 2025, still 14 years away -- which seems like plenty of time to ramp up infrastructure to put recharging stations all over the country and dial up production of batteries. But it's not. It takes four to five years to develop a car, and even longer to invent new technologies, test them for quality and durability, and then get them on the road. That's not even considering the infrastructure development needed to provide recharging stations across the U.S.

The auto industry should sell between 13 million and 16 million new vehicles a year between now and 2025. For automakers, in the next fourteen years, to make 10% of those a year electrics and hybrids would be an enormous achievement.

The auto industry has a very powerful lobbying group, one that doesn't hesitate to throw about its weight when it doesn't like proposed legislation. Yet given the industry's history of stonewalling, it would be a mistake to pass a 60 mph CAFE standard. If the U.S. seriously wants to encourage consumers to start driving small cars, it needs to adopt higher gas taxes, a wildly unpopular idea with voters. History has shown that higher fuel prices are the only thing that drives U.S. consumers to smaller cars.

In Europe, they understand the connection between high gas prices and better fuel economy. Drivers opt for smaller cars, sacrificing storage space and other niceties to have a more efficient vehicle. The Ceres survey did not ask consumers if they would be willing to pay $8 a gallon gas to support the 60 mpg goal.

If it had, the survey would really be interesting.

Bottom Line
It's worth remembering that while the federal government can mandate that automakers build vehicles that get 60 mpg, they can't mandate that consumers buy them.

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