Wednesday, August 29, 2012

New CAFE standards

The Obama Administration is increasing substantially fuel economy standards for auto makers.  An article can be found here.  The current rules are 29 miles per gallon for the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE); they are to increase to 35.5 mpg by 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025. How are they to do this?  Increase development of electrified vehicles and generate more fuel efficiency through engine improvements and lighter car bodies.  A hidden cost in this is that injury and death rates are higher in smaller, lighter cars.

According to the article, the administration estimated that Americans would reduce oil consumption by about 12 billion barrels over the course of the program.  Transportation Secretary LaHood said the standards would save Americans $1.7 trillion in fuel costs, or an average of more than $8000 a vehicle by 2025.  Environmental groups applaud the standards.

What are the problems?  First, auto prices will be higher.  Mr. LaHood agreed prices would increase but only by a fraction of what is saved in gas. I have no idea how he knows this.  Economic theory suggests that prices will increase by the present value of the expected savings on fuel costs.  This will also depend on what fuel prices are in 2020 or 2025.  As noted in the article, GM is shutting down production for while on the Chevrolet Volt hybrid becase of a backlog of inventory.  People aren't buying the vehicle.  It also will negatively impact poorer people. We are likely to see older, less efficient vehicles stay on the road longer because these would be the cars poorer families could afford to drive.

Another problem is that compliance is not determined by what the companies produce but by what they sell. This means that the firms may have to lower prices on the more fuel-efficient cars if people aren't buying them in order to be compliant.  Some have argued that an important part of the difficulties GM had that led to its bankruptcy were due to CAFE.  To meet the standards, GM sold the most efficient cars at a loss, counting on profits on the larger vehicles such as SUVs to nake up for the losses.

This is another example of the government trying to achieve a goal through regulations instead of prices.  If the problem is too much oil consumption, then raise the price of oil and gasoline.  Then people decide whether they want to conserve through more fuel efficient cars, use mass transit more, or other means. It also provides incentives for people to come up with more fuel-efficient autors. But consumers and taxpayers would see the higher cost of gasoline as due to congressional action.  When car prices rise over time, those same consumers and taxpayers may blame the "greedy" auto makers for the higher prices.

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