Why Consumers Like CAFE

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Why do consumers like CAFE? Well, the short answer is that a gas tax (which is infinitely superior from a pure policy perspective) hits them directly in the pocketbook, while CAFE forces automakers to absorb the cost increases before passing them along to consumers in the form of higher MSRPs. But underlying this fact is a larger issue that’s driving support of increased emissions regulation: gas is getting more expensive. As I pointed out in my recent editorial on the subject, for all the automakers’ whining about CAFE increases, it seems that energy prices are moving the market in the same direction anyway (the average family will spend $3,100 on gasoline this year).

According to a Consumer Federation of America study [ PDF], the steadily-rising price of energy has consumer’s even more concerned about gas prices and dependence on the volatile Middle East than they were during the height of the last fuel price shock in the Summer of 2008. As a result, support for a 60 MPG fuel economy standard doesn’t go below 49% (among Independents) even assuming a ten-year payback period, and earns the support of 63% of Democrats. And before you dismiss this support as hysteria, consider the underlying economics for a moment…

The CFA lays out a fairly compelling case that argues for weighing the industry’s additional per-vehicle costs against the reduction in fuel expenditures on the consumer end. Now, estimates of per-vehicle cost increases for any given standard vary wildly depending on who you talk to, but based on this rough analysis, it seems fairly clear that the fuel cost savings almost always outweigh per-vehicle cost increases, meaning the industry should have no problem passing along the higher construction costs of CAFE compliance along to the consumer.


The study concludes:

Our analysis of the auto market shows that that there are numerous factors on both the supply-side and the demand-side of the auto market that cause it to produce less fuel economy that it should.19 Standards are an excellent way to address many of the market imperfections that hinder the development of fuel economy. We believe that the standards played a large part in pointing the industry in this direction and without standards, the market will not go far enough fast enough…

Over the past decade, whenever gasoline prices spiked, loud calls for short-term measures to reduce the pain at the pump are heard. Quick fixes, like gasoline tax holidays or releases from the strategic petroleum reserve may provide some short-term relief, but treating the symptom, rather than the cause is not going to solve the underlying problem. And, after a difficult decade there can be no doubt that there is a serious long-term problem. Our research shows that, while the public is certainly justified in demanding immediate relief, it also understands what the long term solution is. Over the course of the decade federal and state policymakers have cobbled together the building blocks with which to provide a meaningful long term solution.

The most effective response to the long-term problem of rising gasoline prices is to dramatically lower the consumption of gasoline. California and the Clean Cars states started in that direction first. They should continue to drive these consumer-friendly policies forward by working for an emissions standard that reinforces federal fuel economy standards and puts the U.S. on the path to doubling fuel economy by 2025. It would be extremely harmful to consumers, the economy, the environment and national security if policymakers squander this opportunity.

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  • Philosophil Philosophil on May 18, 2011

    Even if consumers are not entirely clear about CAFE regulations, this doesn't of itself entail that CAFE is not justified. After all, one may well argue that government is justified in regulating emissions from various kinds of industries (for a multitude of reasons, e.g., issues relating to quality of life, health, long term sustainability, harms to other species, harms to the environment, and so on), so why wouldn't government be equally justified in regulating emissions from automobiles for comparable reasons, not to mention the issues relating to dependence on fossil fuels in general? There are a multitude of issues that come into play relating to CAFE besides consumer choice, and to try to reduce issues relating to automobile emissions to a person's willingness to pay for gas seems both narrow and short sighted.

    • See 7 previous
    • SPPPP SPPPP on May 23, 2011

      @Marcus, @philosophil I think my analogies are just fine ... The point has nothing to do with how scarce white bread and oil are. It has to do with government mechanisms for controlling citizens' behavior. The basic mechanism of CAFE, when applied to other common decisions that free citizens face in their daily lives, sounds ridiculous. That was my point. By the way, I have never considered myself to be a "libertarian".

  • Lakeuser2002 Lakeuser2002 on May 18, 2011

    Since 3/4ton trucks are exempt, I'll be in a 3/4ton suburban giving me the room and safety that I desire. The law of unintended consequences at work.

  • Sgeffe How much of a current draw is one of those digital plates?
  • Ajla I had a chance to drive a few Toyota/Lexus products the last two weeks. The turbo-4 is basically charmless. I don't see much reason to go for it over the over the 2.5L or a HSD hybrid. Maybe if you live at higher elevation?The "HybridMax" is interesting. The stronger rear motor gives it more of a RWD feel. It isn't a sporty powertrain but was reasonably smooth and powerful.
  • MaintenanceCosts A fair deal would be a single tier with at least a 33% raise for everyone over the life of the contract to make up for recent inflation and quite a few below-inflation years.Retiree health benefits and pensions are ridiculous, could legitimately bankrupt the automakers (unlike the raise), and shouldn't be in the deal.I'd really like to see the union accept a bit less cash and go after the 32-hour workweek harder. I think all of our society would be better on a four-day-a-week schedule, with little if any loss of output - business after business has found that people are more productive with four-day schedules, and almost everyone who tries it keeps it.
  • Jordan Mulach Hey Matt, this story has already been uncovered as not being the Camry update. Toyota US actually took independent digital renders and used them.You can see more about it from the artist here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CxmR8idB9C3/?img_index=1
  • ToolGuy Well the faithful 2010 RAV4 has new headlamp assemblies installed as of yesterday (ordered them a year ago and put it off until now). Have to remove the entire front fascia *and* remove part of the radiator support to change the headlamps. Ordered new side brackets and clips since the thing is pretty much designed to go together once (it comes apart when it comes apart, is what I'm saying), so we'll get to hop back in there when those show up later this week. (Alternative is to have the wrong gap at the fascia/fender interface and you know we can't have that.)Just crossed 150K mileage, engine is strong, no signs of transmission trouble. Michelins are performing well. Spouse is pushing for an EV (or a Jeep, but I ignore that Jeep part). Very high likelihood that this particular Toyota will be replaced with a non-Toyota, maybe 2 years from now.Oh, no one cares. 🙂