Killer cars: How mpg rules make cars less safe and less green

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 30 2013 9:55 a.m. MST

Smaller cars can get better mpg — but it may come at a cost to both safety and the environment.

Easa Shamih, "Easa Shamih (eEko) | P.h.o.t.o.g.r.a.p.h.y" via Flickr

When the Obama administration announced in August its plans to increase fuel economy standards to the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks, all eyes were on the lofty goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, saving consumers money at the gas pump and reducing U.S. dependency on foreign oil. But the problems with practically doubling the fuel efficiency standards, some experts say, have unintended consequences, such as reducing vehicle safety and, ironically, hurting the environment.

The mpg regulations, called the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, were established by Congress in 1975 in response to the oil embargoes and energy crisis of the times. The goal was simply to reduce energy consumption by increasing the fuel economy of cars and light trucks. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration adjusted the regulations over the years and then set the average mpg for car manufacturers' new car fleets at 27.5 mpg for two decades.

Now, the administration's jump to 54.4 mpg by 2025 worries a former car company attorney, Robert E. Norton. One of the ways manufacturers can improve mpg is by making smaller, lighter cars — cars that Norton says won't fare well against larger cars and trucks on the road.

"The bigger vehicle wins in the collisions," says Norton, a former attorney and consultant for car part manufacturers and car companies like Chrysler. Now, as vice president for external affairs at the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Norton is concerned about the implications of federal regulations requiring car manufacturers to increase their fleet average mpg.

Over time, regulatory and public concerns about automobiles has shifted. At first, Norton says, the main concern was safety — something pushed by Ralph Nader. Then, in the 1970s, oil embargoes and high gasoline prices brought fuel efficiency to the fore. CAFE standards were introduced in 1975 and car manufacturers struggled to raise their fleets' average miles per gallon. The standards exempted trucks, which saw the rise of the popularity of SUVs for people who wanted more space.

Then environmental concerns took the driver's seat — now heightened by efforts to reduce human contributions to global warming.

But not every environmentalist sees CAFE standards for higher mpg as making environmental sense.

Ozzie Zehner says the CAFE standards are open to politics and a lot of manipulation.

"There are so many loopholes and exclusions that the actual miles per gallon won't increase as much as people think they will," says Zehner, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and the author of "Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism."

The regulations will improve average mpg for cars and light trucks, but Zehner says the figure is manipulated. It isn't a real average because the rules will allow manufacturers to use many different credits and adjustments to reach the target mpg. For example, electric cars and bio-fuel capable cars will have imputed mpg levels that improve the overall fleet average.

These invented mpg levels and credits are why Norton calls the new mpg goals "fictitious." He says setting a high number like 54.5 mpg sounds like good news, but he doesn't think combustion engine cars are going to get anywhere near that mpg.

"But to even start moving to an average of 52 mpg," Norton says, "even with the extra credit from electric cars, you've got to take the cars a long way from where they are now."

Reducing weight across a manufacturer's whole car and light truck fleet means those cars will have to compete with larger, heavier vehicles. In a crash, that can be deadly. Michael Anderson and Maximilian Auffhammer at the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when a car is hit by a vehicle that is 1,000 pounds heavier, there is a 47 percent increase in the probability of fatality.

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