We cry over spilled oil, yet subsidize the production of ultra-polluting cars
The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, coupled to the recent rebound in auto sales, remind us of something that even Republican oilman George W. Bush often said: the United States uses too much petroleum. Why then is the federal government forcing taxpayers to subsidize the manufacture of a 556-horsepower luxury car that gets 14 miles per gallon?
The public owns about 60 percent of General Motors, with around $52 billion forcibly extracted from taxpayers’ pockets to subsidize the company. General Motors builds the Cadillac CTS-V, a rich person’s plaything that retails for $62,020, does zero-to-60 in a racetrack-caliber 4.3 seconds – that is faster than a Corvette of the 1960s muscle-car era — has an outrageous 556-horsepower motor and posts a miserable 14 MPG. (Mileage references in this column will be the EPA “combined” figure that blends city and highway driving.) To boot, the CTS-V emits 13.3 tons per year of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas. That’s far more than a typical car.
At the very time we are reminded of the fragility and environmental consequences of U.S. petroleum consumption, at the very time President Barack Obama and many in Congress want regulation of greenhouse gases, federally subsidized General Motors is using taxpayer funds to build an extremely wasteful, ultra-polluting car. The gas mileage of the CTS-V is so awful, it would have qualified – right off the assembly line – for destruction as a clunker under last summer’s “cash for clunkers” program. Manufactured and then immediately junked: the ultimate government program. Except these Cadillacs aren’t going to the shredder, they are on the street wasting gasoline and pumping out greenhouse gases, courtesy the taxpayer.
This Cadillac is offensive at many levels: wasted gasoline, wasted tax funds, greenhouse-gas output, extremely high horsepower. The very rapid acceleration generated by that horsepower has no bearing on everyday driving conditions: rather, is useful solely for road-rage behavior such as drag-racing from stoplights and cutting others off. And can anyone explain why typical Americans are being taxed to subsidize rich twits who want “heated bucket leather seating surfaces with suede microfiber inserts and 10-way power adjuster/recliner with two-way lumbar?” Bear in mind as well that horsepower is the enabler of road rage. Being behind the wheel has become stressful in part because so many cars are now overpowered; the slightest blip of the throttle allows aggressive driving. Reduce the horsepower, and road-rage behavior should diminish.
The Caddy in question is hardly the only low-mileage, high-polluting car that taxpayers now subsidize. GM’s taxpayer-subsidized Denali mega-SUV, seemingly as massive as the mountain for which it is appropriately named, gets just 15 MPG and emits 12.4 tons of greenhouse gases annually. The taxpayer-subsidized Dodge Ram 1500 gets 15 MPG and emits 12.4 tons of global warming pollutants each year. The taxpayer-subsidized Chrysler SRT-8, with an offensive 425 horsepower, gets just 19 MPG. The taxpayer-subsidized Chevy Camaro, praised for being zoomy-looking, with its big-block engine option whimpers in at 19 MPG and 9.8 tons of carbon dioxide annually – and the Camaro is a coupe with full-sized seating for only two adults. (Check the mileage and air emissions of any car here.) The taxpayer-subsidized Buick Lucerne, a nondescript family car, with the big-engine option gets just 18 MPG while emitting 10.4 tons of greenhouse gases annually. Come on kids, let’s jump in the family car and waste petroleum at taxpayer expense while we drive to the protest against those bad, bad oil companies responsible for the spill! You could even seek vengeance by jumping into an absurdly named Dodge Avenger – but the revenge would be on your own wallet, since the Avenger is subsidized by your taxes and its big-engine option posts a dismal 20 MPG.
Though Ford Motors has taken no federal subsidies – good for Ford! – it too is guilty of mileage and greenhouse-gas sins. Ford’s revamped Taurus, the company’s signature family car, gets just 21 MPG and emits 8.9 tons of carbon dioxide annually. Due out soon is a 412-horsepower Ford Mustang that will be lucky to get 22 MPG when scored by the EPA. Meanwhile the country’s two best-selling cars, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, get just 23 MPG with their big-engine options.
YES, THE GOVERNMENT CAN TELL YOU WHAT YOU CAN DRIVE
Federal fuel economy standards are about to begin rising, a one-third increase by 2016. That is a long-overdue improvement – most standards haven’t risen in 20 years – and should reduce oil waste and greenhouse gases. (The alleged current “27.5 MPG” new-car fuel average that politicians talk about is a fiction designed to make oil waste seem less extreme, and the new standards are expressed in Orwellian language, too; see below.) But even if the problem will decline in future years, why are gasoline-squandering, high-polluting cars and SUVs legal for sale today – to say nothing of federally subsidized?
Don’t respond by saying that overpowered cars and wasteful SUVs are justified because “no one can tell me what I can drive.” On a private track, that’s true. As regards public roads, courts consistently rule that vehicle engineering may be regulated for public purposes such as safety and pollution control. Government most emphatically can tell you what you can drive. It’s just that as regards oil waste and greenhouse gases, government often doesn’t.
What is especially maddening about the situation is that contemporary cars have not, as commonly assumed, become less efficient. Actually, “drivetrain” engineering has taken major strides in recent decades – but too much of the gains have gone into increased horsepower and acceleration.
Here are the trend lines. From 1975 to 2007, average auto horsepower rose from 137 to 223, a 63 percent increase; real-world fuel economy rose from 13.1 MPG to 20.2 MPG, a 54 percent improvement; acceleration quickened from an average of 14.1 seconds zero-to-60 to 9.6 seconds, or 32 percent faster. For a generation, the trend has been for American vehicles to have more horsepower and accelerate more rapidly. Fuel economy has improved too – but could have improved much more if the engineering gains hadn’t been devoted to speed and horsepower. As cars become more muscular and quicker blasting away from stoplights, fuel economy fails to improve while carbon emissions rise.
Automakers have taken to saying that incredible steps – exotic materials, super-advanced designs – will be needed to meet the coming federal mileage mandate of one-third improvement. Woe is us, Detroit executives say about improving MPG: what they’ve been saying since the 1970s. A recent Wall Street Journal article quoted a Big Three executive declaring, “there are no silver bullets” for better MPG. But there are – just reduce horsepower!
Today’s cars could have less horsepower, and thus higher MPG and lower greenhouse emissions, yet still be more powerful than cars of a generation ago. They just can’t have unlimited amounts of horsepower, installed as if there were no consequences. There are, in oil demand and greenhouse gases accumulation.
Ford is about to release a 2011 Mustang that has a 305-horsepower engine and gets 31 MPG in highway driving; the company says the car will be the first “300+/30+” vehicle ever manufactured, powerful yet reasonable in highway fuel use. (The combined MPG rating, which takes into account stop-and-go driving, the company is not talking about.)
Congratulations to Ford engineers: but the same technology used for that 302-horsepower engine might have been used for a 250-horsepower car that uses less gasoline and is socially responsible.
There are cars made by General Motors and Chrysler, with taxpayer subsidies, that offer good mileage and high quality – the 26-MPG GMC Terrain SUV is a terrific example of size and comfort plus a reasonable fuel number. But too much horsepower and too much oil waste continue to characterize new car offerings, and now, often at taxpayer expense.
We’re being taxed to subsidize the manufacture of wasteful high-polluting cars, and soon may be taxed again to correct the greenhouse gases these cars emit.
WHAT’S FISHY ABOUT GOVERNMENT MPG RATINGS?
Officially, since the mid-1990s, new cars sold in the United States averaged 27.5 MPG, and since 2006, officially, new pickups sold in the United States average 22.2 MPG. Good luck actually finding any cars with at least 27.5 MPG in their combined ranking – there are only a handful, though supposedly that’s the average for all models. Pickup trucks? The Ford F-150 series, the top-selling pickup, gets 11 MPG to 17 MPG, depending on power-train options, though supposedly 22.2 is the national average.
What’s going on here is that EPA ratings and the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard employ complex formulas for various categories of vehicles and their share of the fleet mix. De jure, the formulas exist to reward automakers with credits for high-mileage cars; de facto, the formulas are gimmicked to cause fuel economy to seem higher than it actually is, giving politicians and auto CEOs a fictitious number to talk about as if it were real. The real-world mileage average for new cars sold in the United States was in 2009 was around 21 MPG . But on Capitol Hill, politicians grandly speak of the “27.5 MPG” average, which makes U.S. oil addiction seem less bad.
New federal mileage regulations announced recently by Barack Obama will revise the CAFE formulas while raising the official new-car average to 35.3 MPG by 2016. That number too will be fictitious, to generate the appearance of super-extraordinary progress. Analysts at Edmunds, the car-buying service, estimate that a 35 MPG official standard will equate to an actual new-car average of about 26 MPG.
A real-world new-car average of 26 MPG will represent a tremendous achievement, cutting new-car oil use by about a third, and also cutting new-car greenhouse gases emissions by a third. (With current technology, carbon dioxide emission is proportional to fuel consumption.) Thus the new Obama mileage standard is an important step forward. But since switching a fictional “27.5 MPG” standard to a realistic 26 MPG standard would not win any political points, the deceptive way of stating that standard has been maintained. In 2016, politicians will boast about new American cars getting “35.3 miles per gallon.” If the actual average is 26 MPG, we can all be happy.
Regulatory postscript: because Microsoft Word automatically changes “cafe” to “café,” it is common even in leading newspapers to encounter references to the “CAFÉ standard.” Perhaps a regulatory mandate for glasses of wine per table?
Oil postscript: Here is an overlooked aspect of the federal government’s dramatic response to the Gulf of Mexico petroleum spill.