At the end of his Rose Garden explanation yesterday of the new U.S. fuel-efficiency standards, President Obama remarked on the good that can be accomplished when we are “working together.” The President may be getting ahead of himself. Watching the unlikely coalition arrayed behind him as Mr. Obama committed the U.S. to an astonishing passenger-car mileage average of 39 miles per gallon by 2016, it looks truer to say we are merely standing together in this adventure, for better or worse.
Mr. Obama’s fleet-mileage partners yesterday included the two auto companies that have fallen into his arms, Chrysler and GM, still-independent Ford, the major foreign manufacturers, United Auto Workers chief Ron Gettelfinger, and beaming representatives from the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists.
All that’s left to arrive at the President’s new destination for the American way of driving are huge, unanswered questions about technology, financing and the marketability of cars that will be small and expensive.
Start with technology. The President’s proposed standards would raise fuel economy goals higher and faster than even the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration believes is practical. Last year, NHTSA issued a proposed rule making that would have raised fuel economy to 32.2 mpg by 2015 for cars and light trucks combined. Its 376-page report notes that “the resources used to meet overly stringent CAFE standards . . . would better be allocated to other uses such as technology research and development, or improvements in vehicle safety.”
The new U.S. fleet will almost certainly be made up of hybrids and electric cars. This comports with the explicit intention of the President and his environmental partners to back out fossil fuels. One may ask: Once Detroit is forced to build these cars, will free Americans want to buy them, at any price?
Unless we outlaw the bigger cars that recent sales figures have shown Americans prefer any time gas prices fall below $4 per gallon, Detroit will need help marketing these small vehicles. As GM’s Bob Lutz put it not long ago, “Very few people will want to change what has been their ‘nationality given’ right to drive big and bigger if the price of gas is $1.50 or $2 or even $2.50. Those prices will put the CAFE-mandated manufacturers at war with their customers.”
All solutions to this problem flow from Washington. One would be to give substantial tax subsidies to buyers. Another would be to impose a federal gas tax to jack up the price of gasoline to $4 per gallon and keep it there. This is the solution that keeps Europeans driving small cars with tiny engines. High gasoline prices have become a political third rail in U.S. politics, and the Obama Administration insists it isn’t interested in subsidies or taxes.
That puts the burden back on the beleaguered auto makers. The Detroit Three already sell small cars at a loss to meet the current 27.5 mpg fleet average. The car companies may hope that if the whole industry is forced to move up the fuel-economy ladder, consumers will have no choice other than to buy these cars. But experience suggests companies that have specialized in making smaller cars, such as the Japanese-owned auto makers, are more likely to be able to sell them at a profit.
Mr. Obama said a lot yesterday about the promised benefits of all this for the environment but not much about return on investment for the auto sellers. These public goals notwithstanding, it still looks as if Ford, Chrysler and GM will be making cars they can’t sell, or can’t sell profitably. That might not be a problem if you’re now Gettelfinger Motors. But still-independent Ford has private shareholders and creditors to answer. While GM and Chrysler attempt to meet the new standards with taxpayer money, Ford will have to do so on its own.
The real carrot the Administration offered the industry yesterday was a detour from the nightmare of state-mandated standards. California has been seeking a waiver from the Administration to impose its own higher mileage standards, and a number of other states have followed suit. The Obama national proposal indeed offers the industry what he called “consistency.”
So yes, it is possible to see why this disparate group came together yesterday. The UAW may soon be the government’s partner in ownership of GM and Chrysler, and it has a strong incentive not to bite the hand feeding it a huge equity stake in the car makers. Ford and the other foreign-owned auto makers, which will have to raise private capital to make changes that U.S. taxpayers will fund at Chrysler and GM, no doubt want to maintain their political viability by not standing athwart this regulatory steamroller.
We wish these folks luck “working together” with the Obama auto-design team. One thing seems certain by 2016: Taxpayers will be paying Detroit to make the cars Americans don’t want, and then they will pay again either through (trust us) a gas tax or with a purchase subsidy. Even the French must think we’re nuts.