Auto Companies, Set the Engineers Free

For those of us concerned about oil security and global warming, it's easy to become frustrated with the trend-line for auto fuel-efficiency of the past couple of decades. Here's what I'm talking about:

But take a look at the left-hand side of the graph. What caused that leap forward in efficiency, and what effect did it have? The short answer is new performance standards, combined with significant fuel price increases, led to a near doubling of fuel economy for passenger cars and a 50 percent increase for light trucks. Without these CAFE standards, the U.S. would have used about 2.8 million barrels a day more gasoline in 2000 according to the National Academy of Sciences. Those savings endured even during the 1980s when prices dropped, underscoring the effectiveness of this policy.

But average fuel economy for the combined fleet peaked in 1988 at 22.1 mpg and has declined since. This is in part due to low prices at the pump, but also because passenger car fleet standards have not been increased since 1990, remaining at 27.5 mpg. And light trucks -- SUVs and pickups, which now make up about half the fleet -- are held to an even lower standard.

Why have standards been held back? Again, low prices have something to do with this (public demand for better policy tends to ebb in those times), but it is also a sign that big auto has retained an army of lobbyists to keep it that way, and they have been wildly successful.

Until now. Prices have risen again at the pump, concerns about global warming and energy security continue to grow, and Congress is set to unleash a new round of innovation in the industry due to the historic Senate compromise agreement to boost the standard. By raising fuel economy standards to 35 mpg by 2020 as agreed to by an impressive bipartisan coalition, we would save 1.2 million barrels of oil daily in the year 2020 - an annual reduction of nearly half as much oil as we currently import from the Middle East, and we would cut global warming pollution by 200 billion tons.

This isn't too much to ask after a stall in progress of about two decades. But don't just take my word for it; others have compared the various policy options on the table to the assessment of top scientists and engineers. And as I've written about before, recently even the National Petroleum Council highlighted the fact that, "a doubling of fuel economy of new cars and light-trucks by 2030 is possible through the use of existing and anticipated technologies," and recommended increases in fuel economy standards. This is in agreement with the 2002 National Academy of Sciences study referenced above.

On top of all that, a recent Consumer Federation of America analysis concluded that even increases to fuel economy of cars and truck which are more aggressive than the Senate bill are economically beneficial to consumers.

Innovation on this front has been pent-up for too many years. The nation deserves better. Toyota and other automakers should call off their lobbyists and let their engineers tackle this challenge.