Like the freshly constructed road to Hell, the federally mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy—or CAFE—is full of good intentions. The new efficiency regulations are supposed to increase an automaker’s average fuel economy to 54.5 mpg by 2025. But while this would ideally lead to smaller fuel sippers, a study from the University of Michigan says there’s a chance that automakers will actually end up building larger and larger vehicles, bringing us back to the SUV boom of the late 1990s—and well, ignoring the reason why these regulations were implemented in the first place.
How? Simply by skirting the rules.
See, the CAFE regulations aren’t just based around a fixed number, drawn seemingly out of a hat. They’re a result of a vehicle’s “footprint,” or overall size: its width, multiplied by the distance between its front and rear wheels, a measurement known as “wheelbase.” This is to protect companies that aren’t full-line makers, that is, they don’t have big trucks in their product lineup. The larger a vehicle’s footprint, the more lax the fuel efficiency standards are, and the more they’ll deviate from that magical 54.5-mpg target.
But, says the study, the entire auto industry will take advantage of this loophole, for many reasons, but not for malicious ones. By 2014, the average vehicle size could increase by 16 square feet, which would cause the industry as a whole to miss the fuel economy goal for that year by 1 to 4 miles per gallon. But this is exactly what consumers want: just note the lack of sales successes for the Smart ForTwo and Fiat 500, for example. And no matter what expensive, exotic efforts automakers use, like electric powertrains or aluminum and magnesium construction to save weight, the whims of the market will lean towards the cheaper option. Fuel economy ain’t cheap, and the path of least resistance works for both parties.
“Will cars get bigger?” asked Steven Skerlos, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s mechanical engineering department. “Very possibly. Will that lead to more pollution? Yes. And there wasn’t an emphasis in the rulemaking process that this could happen.”
Either way, the CAFE regulations will still lead to decreased pollution, just not at a rate intended by the people who created them. Small cars are still selling big these days, and even though we won’t see the boon of hulking SUV behemoths in years past, it will still be business as usual for our new cars that will increase in size.
Source: University of Michigan