Obama's Orders: Detroit Must Build Fuel-Efficient Cars—Starting Now

By Rachel Cernansky | May 19, 2009 3:29 pm

car.jpgPresident Obama proposed new fuel efficiency standards today, establishing the first nationwide regulation for greenhouse gases [Washington Post]. The proposal is centered around the strictest plan ever for increasing fuel standards for passenger vehicles, sharply raising pressure on struggling automakers to make more efficient cars and trucks [Reuters]. Under the plan, cars would be required to reach an average efficiency of 35.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2016—four years earlier than the deadline imposed by the 2007 energy bill. Light trucks would be required to reach 30 mpg.

The new rules would pose a challenge for car manufacturers: the White House estimates the current average efficiency to be 25 mpg. The new standards would resolve the spat between California and auto manufacturers over implementing the state’s emissions regulations [ClimateWire]. In return for the strict national rules, California will drop its plans to impose strict state-wide standards for fuel efficiency, which had been bitterly resisted by both carmakers and President George Bush. In practice California’s rules tend to override milder national regulations, as it is cheaper to follow them than to produce different vehicles [The Economist].

The leading U.S. automakers participated in the negotiations that led to the new agreement, and the companies pronounced themselves happy to have avoided a patchwork of state regulations. “We are pleased that President Obama is taking decisive and positive action as we work together toward one national standard for vehicle fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions that will be good for the environment and the economy,” Ford said in a statement [Washington Post].

The program covers model year 2012 to model year 2016 [and will result in] a projected reduction in oil consumption of approximately 1.8 billion barrels over the life of the program…. that’s more oil than we imported last year from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Libya, and Nigeria combined [Boston Globe].

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Image: Flickr / cosmic spanner

  • Erasmussimo

    While I agree with the intent of Mr. Obama’s plans, I would prefer to achieve the goal in a more straightforward manner: slap an appropriate tax on gasoline. I know, I know, it’s politically impossible. But it would still be an all-around fairer solution to the problem. If my neighbor wants to drive his gas-guzzler, that’s his business — but he should pay for the privilege!

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    I agree with Erasmussimo but I’ll go him one farther – have every gas pump recognize what kind of car you drive, and charge appropriately based on the gas mileage your car gets. If you can afford it, mash that hummer.

    I’ll bypass the whole thing and ride by bike. :)

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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland


    This is not a post about cold fusion (although I’ve written about tentative new hopes for that discredited idea), nor does it have anything to do with the silliness known as the 9-11 Truth Movement. Please stay more on topic in the future. We reserve the right to delete off-topic comments.

  • Jo

    @Erasmussimo: Passing the cost directly to the consumer doesn’t really spur innovation on the part of the automakers. Here in Canada, about 1/3 of the price is already tax. We’ll pay it, because we have to pay it. The problem is not just SUVs. It’s every car on the road.

  • Michael

    That kind of elitist gasoline tax is an economic death sentence for a lot of people in western states who have to drive 50 miles+ each way to work every day. It still angers me how people who live in Eastern condensed cities and urban areas like to smack us western folks with the excessive gasoline tax.

    I’m all for smaller, more efficient vehicles, but it would be nice to be able to pay for them also. The gasoline tax destroys working people who have to drive older, less efficient vehicles because they simply can’t afford newer cars, and folks who live far from their work sites.

    Luckily, any politician stupid enough to support a huge increase in gasoline tax is signing a one-way ticket to political oblivion.

  • http://www.PrometheusGoneWild.com Dennis

    Call me a Libertarian, but I have mixed feelings about the Federal government deciding what we can and cannot do based on Politically correct assumptions. Who are they to decide that I cannot have a SUV? Why is it the Federal Government place to decide what type of vehicle I buy?
    What is next? “You cannot live in a big house because it is bad for the environment and wastes resources.”? If the government can tell us what type of car to drive, why not what type of house we can live in?
    Or what type of food to eat? Who we can associate with?
    The point I am trying to make is the Federal Government is playing a larger and larger part of our lives. This was not the way it was intended to be. The states were supposed to deal with the small stuff and the Federal government was supposed deal with Defense and Interstate problems.
    I think the car manufacturers are making a big mistake in not letting California have their own emission standards. The great thing about a Federation of states is if one state tries it, and it does not go according to plan (unintended consequences, not doing what the legislation was intended to do), it is a learning experience for all the other states.
    By having the Federal Government do things first, with “one size fits all” bill (Connecticut is different than Nevada. Really) may only create a lot of issues that may take years to work out legally and economically.
    Don’t get me wrong, I cannot wait for the Volt to come out and would like to see big oil be whipped and put in the corner. I support wind, geothermal and biomass energy production.
    I just do not like my decisions being made for me by politicians in Washington.

  • zach

    Yes, it is not what it originally intended to be. Congratulations, you accurately described what happens to a political system that survives nearly two and a half centuries; particularly the last 250 years as they have seen the most dramatic changes in world affairs and technology ever known. It’s not trying to decide which vehicle you buy, but there are costs to having certain vehicles. It would be like complaining about how heating oil costs more to heat that big home, well, if you can’t afford, live somewhere smaller. That’s not fascist, that’s economics. Supporting biomass and wind energy is rather pointless, as no matter how much support they get they are not viable sources of energy; particularly if you are concerned about unintended consequences you should steer clear of biomass. Geothermal is legitimate, there is even research into how to create the geology needed to produce it artificially, which gives it an expanded scope from it’s current limitations.

  • nicolew

    How about increased gasoline tax revenue going directly (do not pass go, do not stop in sticky-fingered Washington) to development of alternative fuel vehicles and infrastructure to support the new technology, including hydrogen fuel cells – just because it’s a long way off (allegedly), doesn’t mean it’s not worth the investment. I’m not usually in favor of increasing any tax, but the fact that we are not already off oil is ridiculous already. Oil simply hasn’t been painful enough for us (even after 9/11)!

    Michael – people in western states can’t live any closer to work than 50+ miles? Really? I have a feeling living that far away is by choice, not necessity. I’ve moved twice, once because the commute was brutal and getting longer, and once because the workplace moved.

    Dennis – right on, but haven’t you noticed that the government has been telling us what to do (and what not to do) for a really long time now?

  • Erasmussimo

    A few points about the merits of a gasoline tax:

    1. Let’s not get all regional here. I’m a strong proponent of gasoline taxes and I live in Oregon.
    2. Mandates are less effective than gasoline taxes in getting automakers to improve the efficiency of their products, because the mandates are artificial and there are always loopholes. Besides, there are people who have legitimate needs for larger, less efficient vehicles, and we shouldn’t mandate their cars out of existence. If you really need it, you should be able to get it — so long as you prove you really need it by being willing to pay the price!
    3. The fact that many Californians have long commutes is a result of decades of cheap gas. Suburban sprawl forces people to have long commutes. Are we going to let the world go to hell because we want to preserve our 60-minute commutes?
    4. A gasoline tax should serve only two purposes:
    a. to provide a fairer marketplace. In a fair marketplace, everybody gets to bid for a resource, and the balance of supply and demand sets the fair price. But we’ve rigged the marketplace for petroleum. The supply is fixed but only the current generation gets to bid for it. Future generations aren’t represented in the marketplace so they get stiffed when we use it all up so that there’s nothing left for them. That’s not fair capitalism.
    b. The use of petroleum entails external costs not reflected in its price. We have committed ourselves to a $2 trillion bill for the Iraq War, which was largely fought because of the threat that Iraq posed to our oil supply. Shouldn’t the cost of fighting that war be factored, to some extent, into the cost of the gasoline it was fought to obtain? And what about the costs of global warming? That’s going to cost us trillions of dollars. Shouldn’t the people who help create that problem also help pay to repair the damage it will do?

  • Affinity

    I’m torn between finding this very funny and horribly tragic, mostly for reasons Dennis almost articulated before qualifying his opinion. What exactly is the point of this? Has anyone considered that seriously? Even if you take the justification for this nonsense as true, which I clearly don’t, do you really suppose this will do anything at all? Cars going 10mpg more? Even if I didn’t find the global warming arguments to be scientifically baseless and swallowed it all I would seriously question the motivations behind this. Do we consider our government to be actively trying to “save” the earth? If so this all seems like a pebble in the ocean according to the views espoused I’m the “consenus” of the “scientific community”. If not, then why inact laws regulating what a citizen can and cannot build or buy?

  • huggies

    Wake up! Stop talking just so you can hear yourself speak.

    We are leaving this planet to future generations, yet we treat the Earth like a hand me down poopie diaper.

  • Frankie

    J.D. Rockefeller was underhanded in securing petroleum rights for his monopoly. When Ford came out with his biomass powered (ethanol) model-T, Ford accounted for 25% of the fuel consumption in the midwest! Because of that, Rockefeller strove to push thru prohibition, all alcohol production in the US was shut down, including ethanol alcohol. The year after Ford switched to the gas powered engine, prohibition was lifted.

    Big money and the status quo are bigger than bloggers. We are screwed, and until we get our heads around that fact, change will just be the jingle in our pockets.

  • tresa

    I am a salesrep and have a very difficult time fitting my literature, samples and demo equipment in my 5 passenger SUV, I also travel northern MN and the Dakotas where the speed limit is posted at 75 so most people drive 80. My first question is room, I am using the entire trunk and backseat now and already need to upgrade to a midsize SUV, my second question is traction control, 4 wheel drive and weight. I can be on black ice with 60 mile per hour winds and they do not use salt on the roads in North Dakota. I drive 3000 plus miles per month so I also must have heated seats, a remote starter and I must be high off the ground with some real weight to the car due to the extreme winds in the plains. Can Obama’s new smart car plan accomplish all of this? I am not asking for much just safety so I can do my job, and yes a remote starter is safety when it is 70 below zero wit the windchill.

    I just have a strong feeling that I am not going to get a very safe car with these new restrictions, I refuse to go back to front wheel drive. I will be purchasing the last grand cherokee on the lot before the new regulations pass, hopefully we will have a new president by then who will repeal this bill

  • Brian

    Do you ever notice that the same free market folks, who proclaim their love of Capitalism, suddenly switch gears when it comes to taxes? They recast the whole debate as being about Big Government.

    Nope. It isn’t. Remember Adam Smith? The Invisible Hand? Did anyone get an education, or did it just prove inconvenient and needed a thrashing out back? Taxes are a way of incentivizing certain behaviours; in this case, get a smaller car, get better mileage, drive less. No one is being dead-stopped, but if you want a guzzler you gotta pay.

    It’s well known that most SUV’s never see off-road driving. Sure they’re safer in collisions but it’s self-justifying–now you need one to prepare for your crashes with all the other SUV’s unnecessarily populating the roads. I could go on but that makes the point. You’re defending against a negative, not working for a positive.

    The Europeans took their taxes and created a fantastic train network. They decided what they wanted and used public policy to get it. The point isn’t that we need a train network. The point is that they believed in public policy and it worked. For everyone who says it doesn’t/can’t/won’t/never/never/never, well, aren’t you the beacon of light and optimism! Doesn’t sound American to me.

    Oh, but the market must be Free. Free as in freedom, not free as in cash-ola. Well, sure, you can go that way. Just keep shipping your money to the Middle East, funding governments you can’t turn your back on, and those terrorists, exactly where do you think their nest egg came from?

    If you want better you have to do better.

  • Ornery

    The top two best selling vehicles (three of the top ten) in the country for 2008, were full size trucks. This has been the American consumer’s choice for several decades

    Now, big brother deems it necessary to ram these coffins-on-wheels down our throats. If this is in the interest of cutting fuel usage, I have a much better, much fairer way to achieve that goal, and preserve choice: Ration gas. Give each taxpayer a set allowance of fuel to use per year, and tax the fuel used beyond that allowance. Simple, fair, and flexible. Detroit will build what consumers demand, NOT what Washington mandates.

  • http://www.futurismnow.com Shelly

    In the interests of public health and safety, gasoline should have a large tax imposed on it as soon as the government offers us adequate incentives to buy an electric car. Climate change is already happening; it’s getting worse week by week; and we are arguing about gas taxes and how fuel efficient a car should be? Put this in perspective. This is about the preservation of civilization and no one’s rights trump that if there is a solution. If you don’t want human civilization to continue, then by all means don’t argue for a gas tax. And keep driving an SUV and arguing that you have that right.

    Unfortunately for you, if I have to live in the world you are creating by driving that SUV and escalating climate change and bringing on the end to civilization and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, then no, dammit, you don’t have a right to drive that SUV. You have the right to demand car makers make more electric cars. And you have the right to demand Congress give us a big tax credit for buying one. And I have the right to tell climate change deniers to go get some ejucashun and read instead of listening to Rush for a change.

    Climate change will affect everyone, even right-wing deniers and Hummer drivers.

  • Renae

    I agree with Michael, a gasoline tax would pretty much kill us out here. I live in southeast Texas, the area is pretty spread out so you really have quite the drive to work and anywhere else for that matter. It’s not a problem for those that live in an area where you can ride a bicycle to work/school/wherever, but when the nearest town is 20+ miles away and theres nothing between point A and point B but some flat prairie land and a couple trees…Lets just say that if the heat and humidity doesn’t get to you then you’ll drop dead from exhaustion.

    I also understand about the whole fuel efficient thing, but in some places (believe it or not) it’s not practical to drive a tiny car that gets 35mpg. To be blunt, you can’t haul hay with a Honda Civic. For people in certain areas, trucks and SUVs ect are just what you’ve got to have.

    I guess really, it just comes down to using your common sense. If you don’t need that big loaded Dually, or the Hummer, or yes even the SUV, don’t get the damn thing.

  • chris

    everyone is wrong, taxes wont save anything except for govt employees raises and jobs. and the problem with electric cars is that you have to burn alot more resources to make the energy required to power electric cars, and wind turbines and solar panels are so inefficient that they can not produce the energy levels required to power everything in this country. if you want a lot of power, naturally, geothermal is abundant and free from the earth, the cost comes from making the technology required to be able to capture and use the energy, also for all the green freaks out there, this is not the first time the world has gone through a climate change, there are over 6 billion people on this planet, and all of them need O2 to live, and plants make O2 and they require CO2 to produce it, CO2 is what is supposedly heating up this planet, well with all the people and animals needing to live you need much more plants to produce the O2 and when there are trillions of fish in the ocean, as you can see there is a lot of O2 being used every moment of the day and a lot of CO2 being produced every moment, so think about the big picture everyone, quit looking out the small, fogged up window in the bathroom And, this is not going to slow down even if we drive fuel efficient and or electric cars

  • chris

    the biggest prblem with those small cars are that they are deadly , and they aren’t going to stop making semi’s and other large vehicles, you have a fighting chance to survive with a suv and large car, there is safety in those bigger vehicles, but the little cars aredeath traps against medium size cars at 35 mph imagine for a moment dieing at 35, what about 70 mph, whoa!!!, the govt isn’t going to change there military vehicles for smaller lighter and more fuel efficient vehicles, also farmers wont be able to get food to us using a chevy volt, and airplanes aren’t going to stop flying to quit producing emissions, trains aren’t going to stop running equipment or food around the US, and semi’s aren’t going to be stopped from running across the US, NO ONE but us the small american will be forced to drive little death traps I guess its a way of population control

  • http://remotestartersforcars.me Kayce Lauber

    I’m so glad that I came across Remote Starters for Cars! It only took me about 3 working hours to install mine and I’m not even an auto mechanic!! The remote that I have with my model is pretty cool looking too. Although I’m contemplating bumping up to a security alarm here soon with the 2 way remote, what do u think?

  • http://www.ruthamcaungay.com/ rut ham cau

    Great stuff.Id like to suggest taking a look at things like sausages. What are your thoughts?


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