A Better Way

During the 1970’s oil embargo, Americans were faced with instability in the Middle East, dramatically increased fuel prices, and an inefficient vehicle fleet that only compounded the crisis. This led policy makers to, for the first time, legislate vehicle fuel economy. In 1975 Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation act, establishing corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards in order to shrink gasoline consumption and to reduce U.S. oil imports. Since the time of CAFE’s passing, U.S. passenger automobiles have doubled their fuel economy, and light trucks have increased theirs by 60%.

However, the CAFE standards have not achieved their goal. Rather than shrink U.S. gasoline consumption, gasoline usage has increased by 60%. Rather than reduce the importation of petroleum into the U.S., imports have grown from 35% of our supplies to over 70%. CAFE standards made sense within the framework of the 1970’s: there were fewer cars on the road, fewer miles traveled by the average driver, and alternative fuel technology that was in its infancy.

It is now thirty years later, and policy makers are again looking at instability in the Middle East and dramatically increased fuel prices. A new problem has emerged as well, global climate change and the effects of greenhouse gasses. Again there is a call for action, and policy makers are looking to increases in the CAFE standards to solve this problem. The difference between then and now is alternative fuel options. Those infants in the 1970’s are now grown up.

The automotive industry must no longer rely on gasoline to propel vehicles. Decades of research and development in alternative fuels are now coming to fruition. There are ethanol and bio-fuels, renewable energy sources that are non-polluting and support domestic farmers instead of Middle Eastern oil companies. There is the hybridization of the automobile, using advanced technologies to use both gasoline and electric powertrains as a way to minimize emissions and get more miles to the gallon. Automakers are working on plug-in hybrid technology, using batteries and small electric motors to give vehicles electric drive range for up to 40 miles. This could eliminate oil consumption for more than half of all American’s who commute to and from work. Hydrogen fuel cells are now in the development stage, and soon consumers will have the option of a totally renewable fueling system allowing for electrical propulsion with a range of hundreds of miles.

While these alternative energy sources will mitigate much of the automotives sector’s impact on global climate change and isolate the country from Middle East instability, they still face a major threat. An increase in CAFE standards will push the commercialization of these new technologies back years. Automakers will be forced to spend research and development money in an effort to increase gas mileage of the more than 100 year old combustion engine. Every dollar spent in this effort is a dollar diverted from a gasoline and carbon dioxide emission free future.

CAFE is a 1970’s solution to a 21st Century problem. Rather than make a shortsighted attempt at fuel efficiency reform, policy makers should look toward the future that alternative fuels can bring. This greenhouse gas and petroleum free future could drive the rest of America into a totally renewable, environmentally harmonious future.

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