This is part one of a multi-part series, not sure how many this will end up being, probably either two or three parts, we’ll see how it develops. Here’s a bit of history, and some of the unintended consequences that we’ve already experienced due to Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (CAFE Standards), which our current president just raised yesterday.
The CAFE Standard was first passed in 1975 by Congress as a response to the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, and took effect in 1978. The purpose was to raise the fuel economy of cars and light trucks sold in the US. There were different rules that applied to passenger cars versus light trucks (SUVs fall under the category of light trucks). Passenger cars were expected to meet an 18 mpg standard in 1978, and that number was raised to 27.5 mpg in 1990 where it has stayed since. The newest standards will require 30.2 mpg by 2011 and 35.5 mpg by 2016. Light trucks have only been required to reach around 20 mpg during most of this time.
At the time these CAFE standards were introduced most manufacturers produced large station wagons, which most families purchased and drove. These large station wagons were unable to meet the fuel efficiency requirements of those current day CAFE standards. However, those same standards did not apply to SUVs which qualified as light trucks according to CAFE standards. Most people will realize that many SUVs are basically tall station wagons. Auto manufacturers were forced to stop making station wagons in order to meet CAFE standards, but the public still had a demand to be met, and the SUV fulfilled that demand. As a result, SUVs have been top sellers in the US for the last fifteen years.
The resultant popularity of SUVs has caused several problems. First, SUVs get lower fuel economy than the station wagons they replaced, therefore the creation of the CAFE Standards resulted in an initial drop in average fuel economy. Second, SUVs are less safe than what a normal station wagon would be. The general designs are very similar, but an SUV has a higher center of gravity and therefore is more likely to roll over when performing evasive maneuvers. (See Isuzu Trooper, Ford Bronco II, and Ford Explorer). Also, the heavier SUVs, with higher bumpers pose threats to the other vehicles on the road that a normal station wagon would not. Over the years, SUVs have been demonized by those that would seek increase fuel economy, and other environmental standards, but in reality were popularized, in part, as a response to those very same fuel standards.
In recent years the gross vehicle weight restriction which determines where vehicles fall in the spectrum of CAFE Standards has been raised several times, therefore leading more SUVs to fall under tighter and tighter fuel efficiency requirements. This has had an impact on the overall car market, causing a further drop in safety, which will be covered in part two of this series.