(April 17, 2006) — Once again, it looks like Detroit has managed to elude real progress in a new set of U.S. fuel economy standards. That's bad news for the plastics industry.
In late March, the Bush administration unveiled new federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules — commonly called CAFE — for light trucks, including pickups, SUVs and minivans. Unfortunately, the new rules don't go far enough, and in fact, they leave open a loophole that could end up making these vehicles less fuel efficient — and that's a serious problem.
First, let's acknowledge that some opinion writers don't think the government has any business at all in this issue — and they are plain wrong. They say Detroit should be free to make any vehicle consumers want to buy. Well, that's not the issue.
U.S. automakers are not going to stop making SUVs, pickups and minivans because of the CAFE regulations. These are popular vehicles, and consumers pay a premium for them. That won't change. But the auto industry needs help — a kick in the pants, if you will — to make these vehicles more fuel efficient.
Encouraging saving energy is a noble and necessary goal, and the federal government is correct to adopt policies with that aim. Creating a level playing field, with aggressive rules that all must meet, will benefit the nation. As a side benefit for the plastics industry, these rules also should favor manufacturers of lightweight materials.
The new standards for light trucks will take effect for the 2008 model year. They require fuel economy improvements of about 10 percent, to an average of 24 miles per gallon in 2011. The current standard is 21.6 mpg.
That's the first problem — the standards don't go far enough. Automakers could easily exceed the new targets by doing what makers of large trucks have done already — being much more aggressive about using plastic body panels. Take a close look at the 18-wheelers on America's highways today, and you'll see that they have taken huge steps in the past 20 years in using sheet molding compound to make cabs much lighter. Cutting weight up front allows truckers to carry more cargo.
Technology exists to make attractive body panels with SMC and polyolefins, but carmakers are reluctant to move away from steel. More ambitious CAFE standards could have been their impetus.
The second problem is more serious. According to a recent report in our sister publication Automotive News, the new CAFE rules could backfire and actually encourage automakers to make less fuel-efficient trucks. How is that possible? According to AN, the standards set different fuel economy targets for different-sized light trucks. Classifications are based on the area covered by a truck's four wheels, called its footprint. The bigger the footprint, the lower the mileage requirement.
According to some experts, car companies may boost the size of their trucks to avoid making more expensive changes to the powertrain, aerodynamics and weight of its vehicles.
That would be incredibly shortsighted. We have a sinking feeling that government regulators were well aware of the loophole when they created the standards. And some carmakers will take advantage of it.
President Bush was right when he said recently that America is addicted to oil. The government needs to make sure that its policies don't continue to contribute to that problem.