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That’s Off-The-Record: A CAFE With a Bad Menu

Not to go all political on you, but it’s amazing how President Obama acted more like a bitter foreclosure victim — one who goes nuts and destroys as much of the house as they can, just short of being arrested for vandalism — during his last days in office, and not a graceful man given two terms as the leader of the free world.

Mr. Obama did this in two ways: one action affected a short list of government folk, and the other impacted one of the most important industries in our lives — the auto industry.

The short-listed government victims are those affected by Obama’s order to share dirt on people talking with “foreigners.” It’s against the law — but when did that stop the former President? What’s worse, and perhaps deadly, is Mr. Obama’s decision to renege on his promise to check and perhaps re-adjust the daunting future Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard his administration first put in place in 2009, which the administration made even wackier in 2011.

How wacky? The automakers, most of them with guns to their heads, agreed in July 2011 to increase fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025. Everybody was on-board this Titanic, including major automakers, the suicidal United Auto Workers, and the People’s Republic of California. But there was a huge “but.”

That “but?” CAFE kills.

Back in 2002, the National Academy of Sciences — a non-political group of fairly smart people — conducted a study on the effects of CAFE on the dying — ahem — driving public. It found that over the nearly three decades CAFE had been the law of the land, downsizing of cars and trucks for fuel economy has cost America about 2,000 lives a year. The media scoffed at the study results. Maybe it was because at around the same time Arianna Huffington and the What Would Jesus Drive nut jobs were demonizing SUV owners and the makers of such vehicles. Oh, and the Earth Liberation Front, was burning dealerships that sold SUVs. Nice, non-violent crowd.

The facts got thrown aside, as usual. The gas-guzzling SUVs were the safest vehicles on the road, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). The deadliest class of vehicles? Small cars, the ones that sipped gas. The saying is simple: you can’t re-regulate the laws of physics, and the takeaway was that we could downsize and lightweight ourselves, literally, to death.

I lost my 17-year-old niece in a traffic accident nine years ago. She was in a small car. Had she been in an SUV or a midsize car, she just may well have survived. Sadly, the little s—t box gave her no chance. It crumbled.

Why in the world do automakers agree to these goals? Simply, fear and old men.

Back in the mid-1990s I was a young PR guy at Chrysler in charge of technology and regulatory issues. While I reported to PR honcho Steve Harris, I actually worked for Ron Boltz, a genius engineer and one of the smartest guys I’ve ever worked with. We were fighting the U.S. government’s attempts to raise CAFE at the time. Our livelihood was on the line. We fought an epic battle with the U.S. government and environmental groups. Then, we caved.

I asked Ron why we gave in. It was simple, he said: “These standards are 15 years away. I will be retired by then.”

Crap, I was in my mid-30s. I was screwed.

So true for the original CAFE agreement with Mr. Obama in 2009. Let’s see, who was doing well at the time? Nobody. GM and Chrysler in bankruptcy, Ford on the brink, and the supplier community on death watch. Mr. Obama was holding a fraternity paddle and the automakers were bending over. Thank you sir, may I have another?

Fast-forward to 2011, around the same time the Environmental Protection Agency declared carbon dioxide a pollutant despite the fact it is the thing that makes plants grow, Mr. Obama’s big CAFE push got turbocharged to 54.5 mpg. However, the 2011 rules established a mid-term review in 2016 to look at how the industry was progressing in meeting the future standards. Last July, the powers to be — the EPA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the People’s Republic of California — weighed in with a technical paper that was surprisingly honest. They said the auto industry was doing a pretty good job towards the whopper of a future CAFE standard, but that the 2025 goal of 54.5 MPG was “unrealistic.”

Why “unrealistic”? It’s called the real world. When gas was $3.50/gallon in 2009 and 2011, CAFE modelers in the U.S. government and the People’s Republic of California surmised half the market would be hybrids and/or pure electric vehicles by 2017. Instead, electrics vehicles are half of one percent of the market, and hybrids — including plug-in hybrids — are here and there at 2.5 percent of the market in the first quarter of 2017. The geniuses predicted a market split of 67-percent cars and 33-percent trucks and SUVS now, but trucks and SUVS are rocking. (Very safely, by the way, according to fatality rates, but that’s another issue the greenies don’t want to hear.)

So much for facts. Enter President Obama. At the end of 2016, as he and Michelle were packing up and not stealing the White House silverware, his EPA locked in automaker targets under the CAFE standards demanding automakers meet a fleet average of 54.5 mpg by 2025, despite the mid-term review results.

Can the automakers meet this future standard? They, as they always do, will try. Back in the early 1970s, the U.S. Congress created a tailpipe emissions standard that no automaker on the planet could meet. What happened? Did the geniuses at Daimler and Toyota find the answer? No, it was the nerds at General Motors that invented the catalytic converter for cars. Their reward? Calls that they were lying and hiding a solution all along, instead of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Today’s vehicles get remarkable fuel economy considering all the safety equipment included in even the most entry-level passenger car. But the question remains: Will the automakers fail to meet the upcoming CAFE standard, less than a decade away? As it stands: yes, but probably not, and not because of some technological advancement that’ll put fuel economy in hyperdrive.

The new President has ordered a review of the process. The Donald has placed unnecessary and costly regulations in his crosshairs. The U.S. automakers are privately cheering him on, despite the fact that he bitch-slapped Ford (in particular) and GM during the primary for potential job losses that are now, magically, fixed.

Expect by fall that Obama’s CAFE stranglehold to disappear and a sensible, yet challenging future CAFE standard the law of the land — one that doesn’t make automakers do stupid things that make their vehicles unsafe at any speed. The enviro-crowd will go nuts — bank on it — but I hope we let the Force of Physics be with us.

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