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Corporate Average Fuel Economy - Don't Tell Me What To Drive

Karl Funke
Oct 1, 2009 SHARE
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Maybe it's just me, but I think people have gone just a little bit nuts over the whole automotive emissions thing. It has culminated so far with President Obama's decree that the miles-per-gallon fleet average will need to increase to 35.5 by 2016.

The EPA's fleet economy monitoring program is known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE). CAFE basically takes the economy numbers from each vehicle in a given manufacturer's fleet and averages them to come up with a single number. But that number isn't a simple arithmetic mean, where you add the economy numbers from X number of vehicles and divide the total by X. CAFE uses what's called the harmonic mean, and that brings the final economy number much closer to the lower end of the spectrum than the middle.

Say a carmaker has two sports cars that average 10 and 12 mpg, a full-size sedan that averages 18, and a clean-diesel microcar that can squeeze out 75. A simple arithmetic mean puts the average of these numbers at 28.75. The harmonic mean, however, registers at 15.85, and that's the number the EPA wants to look at.

Confused? Join the club. But for our purposes here, I'll just say that the 2016 mandate seems terribly optimistic. In order to hit the magic 35.5, which itself is derived from target economy numbers of 39 and 30 mpg for cars and trucks, respectively, overall efficiency will need to ramp up around four to five percent each year from here on out.

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Don't get me wrong. Increasing efficiency is a good idea. But increased efficiency has always been attained historically through the ongoing advancement of internal-combustion technology and lightweight construction methods. Increased fuel efficiency seems a given, whether the government mandates it or not.

I've never really subscribed to the idea that federal regulations will crush high performance, specifically high performance of the big displacement type. I mean, it didn't happen in the '70s, and looking back, things seemed a lot more bleak then. We haven't even had to line up for gas yet.

Yes, I'm one of those guys: I like big, loud, all-motor V8s, 10s, 12s. So go ahead and burn me at the stake. My worry is that these ever tightening standards might actually start sending our most brash, most inspiring (yet "environmentally irresponsible") power units away from American soil for good.

High performance, even big displacement for that matter, will never go away in Europe. I'm pretty convinced of that. But if it becomes too difficult to work within the new CAFE standards, European manufacturers may just start omitting their very best high-performance machinery from their export lists. It has happened in the past. Remember the Porsche 959? The Euro-spec E30 and E36 M3s, or the E46 CSL? Where the heck is our American-spec RS6? Why is it, do you think, that in many other cases the European specification of Brand X car makes more power than an otherwise identical States-bound version?

Of course, there are always loopholes in bureaucratic programs like CAFE, and automakers have usually found ways to work within, or even beat, the system. And missing your CAFE-mandated fleet economy average doesn't necessarily preclude a big-block engine existing in the fleet. It just becomes more expensive to export. And you can bet the manufacturer isn't going to subtract the added cost from its bottom line; that cost will be passed down directly to you and me, the American consumers.

I guess my biggest fear is that with these optimistic economy figures, the government seems to be taking a much stronger tack in telling us what we should be driving. If automakers by and large hit the magic 35.5 figure, who's to say it won't be increased upwards of 40 mpg by 2020? Or 50 mpg by 2025?

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Program proponents would probably point to the all-knowing electric hybrid as humanity's savior. Yeah, a hybrid might currently be the one avenue that could instantly net us ridiculously low emissions and stratospheric fuel economy digits. But at what cost? Our souls?

If ever the day comes that American car fleets are comprised solely of hybrids and electrics, that's the day you'll see me skateboarding to work. And I'll be having more fun than I would be driving.

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By Karl Funke
177 Articles

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