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Fuel Economy: We Must Do More Than Ask

Aug. 29, 2007

Fuel Economy: We Must Do More Than Ask

Statement of Robert Shull, Deputy Director for Auto Safety and Regulatory Policy at Public Citizen

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards today called for Americans to drive more fuel-efficient vehicles, but we still need policy changes that would make that idea a reality.

In his platform, Edwards rightly vows to raise fuel economy standards to 40 miles per gallon by 2016. Today, however, speaking at a machinists union event, Edwards added a twist: “I think Americans are actually willing to sacrifice,” Edwards said.  “One of the things they should be asked to do is drive more fuel-efficient vehicles.”

The problem is that the nation is addicted to foreign oil, and transportation is one of the biggest reasons why. This problem is simply much too big to be left up to the individual purchasing decisions of consumers, many of whom live in parts of the country in which they have no choice but to drive every day to go to work or the supermarket.

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program was established precisely because the market without any fuel economy requirement left the nation dangerously dependent on foreign oil. In fact, as CAFE standards have been allowed to stagnate for the past 20 years, that problem has duplicated itself: Manufacturers have chewed up fuel efficiency gains with larger engines, increased vehicle weight and many extras instead of applying them to increase fuel economy.  Increasing fuel economy standards would place the burden on automakers to build more efficient vehicles that meet the range of consumers’ needs.

Instead of taking advantage of technologies that could make vehicles more fuel-efficient, automakers have allowed those technologies to gather dust on the shelf and have produced gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles (SUVs). The automakers aggressively marketed SUVs to the American public, claiming that these rollover-prone and dangerous vehicles would make them safer on the roads. U.S. auto manufacturers have focused a greater proportion of their production on the light-truck sector than the Japanese and European manufacturers and have recently extended a long-standing practice of giving consumers discounts, rebates and preferential loan rates in exchange for buying vehicles whose utility exceeds their needs.

John Edwards is right: The vehicles being driven on American roads should be much more fuel-efficient. But consumers shouldn’t be asked to bear the responsibility of fixing the problem. This responsibility must be borne by the automakers. It’s long past time to ask them nicely to do the right thing. It’s time for Congress and the administration to set tough fuel economy standards.