As a political battle, it was great theatre. Harry Reid and Nancy Pellosi, respectively the Democratic leaders in the Senate and the House, are now in the process of wrapping up an energy bill – on exactly the terms dictated by the President.
Which is not good news. They were fighting over imposing new taxes and regulating utilities. The car battle was lost three weeks ago.
By a one vote margin, the Senate yesterday refused to adopt an energy tax increase as a part of the proposed energy bill, an increase the White House and Republicans had opposed. Earlier, the Senate stripped out of the bill a renewable energy mandate also opposed by Republicans.
Having eliminated those, the bill then passed the Senate by a vote of 86 to 8. The House is expected to concur next week and the White House says the President will sign the bill after that.
The bill raises fuel economy standards to a corporate average of 35 mpg by 2020. The bill does not state that only the federal government and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can set fuel economy standards, leaving open the possibility that the Environmental Protection Agency and individual states will attempt to do so in the guise of regulating CO2 emissions – as California, Massachusetts, and several others have already attempted to do.
The bill was supported by the automakers and by the United Auto Workers. For reasons which both will ultimately regret.
Where things will go from here is far from clear. Automakers have universally asserted that meeting the new standard will add $5,000 to $6,000 to the cost of a new car. Just last week, General Motors vice-chairman Robert Lutz said that GM would simply tear up all of their product plans and start over from scratch if the 35 mpg standard became law. Stock market analysts have generally taken the view that meeting the standard would be beyond the financial capabilities of Chrysler, LLC.
Typically, the lead time in the auto industry required to bring an entirely new platform to market is five years. The industry has twelve model years before 2020. But it also faces absolutely confounding challenges.
One of those challenges is meeting the standards.
Another, perhaps even more difficult, will be selling the product that meets those standards.
To meet those standards, it seems inevitable that automakers will downsize vehicles, as reducing weight is one of the most direct ways to reduce fuel consumption. Though the Congress apparently thinks that Detroit can develop some alternative energy source that will supplant gasoline, that notion is entirely unproven. Not only does the internal combustion engine have a hundred years of technology behind it, but gasoline is also a fairly efficient source of energy, much more so than either ethanol or hydrogen.
Then, there’s always the doctrine of unintended consequences. This rule, a variation of the one that says the road to hell is paved with good intentions, holds that there’s always something that wasn’t anticipated because thinking about the future tends to be an extension of past thinking. Viewing hydrogen, for example, as an ideal fuel is based on comparing it to gasoline and determining that it does not have the same set of problems as gasoline. But that does not mean it will be free of problems. It will likely have its own unique problems, problems that may not become apparent until the theory is put to the test in practice.
But even from this distance, it’s easy to see one of those unintended – or, at least, ignored - consequences of the new law:
The blunt fact is that small cars aren’t as safe as big cars. (This is why there are no small tanks.) To this, those who despise cars and love mass transit always say that the solution is to reduce the size of all cars, so there are no more big cars. End of problem. Right?
Well, not exactly. There are still trees, telephone poles, bridge abutments. At a more complex level, there is the effect of speed on the extent of impact. Physics provides laws that even Congress cannot amend.
Or can it?
When the safety issue was raised by those who opposed the new mileage standards, the response was that Congress would then simply enact new safety standards, too.
So, enough of this nonsense.
It’s time for us all to demand that our lawmakers quit playing games with fuel economy and our safety. No more half measures.
How’s about 200 mpg by next year with absolute safety – no injury whatsoever – at an impact of 65 mph?
After all, the premise has now been established. All it takes to accomplish engineering goals is the concurrence of the House, the Senate, and the President.
What are they waiting for?