I’m working on a post describing what I think the Big Two and a Half ought to propose on December 2 when they drive their hybrids to DC (in lieu of flying) to beg for money again. As part of that, I will suggest that they ask Congress to levy a stiff gas tax. But since I am getting into more and more discussions with environmentalists who want any bailout to be tied to increased CAFE standards, I’m going to lay out why I think a tax is much better than increased CAFE standards for everyone.
Why CAFE Standards Suck at Achieving their Goal
I’m going to start with the assumption that the goal of CAFE standards is to force auto manufacturers to build more environmentally efficient cars (arguably that’s not what it was originally intended to do). It does so with brute force regulation that does not, at the same time, change the actual market-wide interest (or not) in environmental efficiency.
Until gas reached $4 plus this summer (and things are returning–though haven’t entirely returned–to where they were now that gas has gotten cheaper again), people calculated "energy efficiency" into their considerations when buying a car in terms of cost of ownership–that is, as one factor among others: how much the car cost, how much monthly loan payments would be, how much maintenance cost, how much insurance cost, and how much gas to run the car cost (this is reflected by the stickers dealers use to sell their cars, which usually describe efficiency both in terms of MPG but also in terms of year gas costs). For most people, efficiency is still a cost issue, and not a benefit per se.
Now consider how that will factor into the choice of a vehicle. For a lot of people, all those cost calculations will be less important than perceived safety or utility arguments. So if having something that feels like a tank is really important to you, you’re going to buy something that feels like a tank and only then consider how much it’ll cost you to run your psuedo-tank. The cost calculations will weigh, overall, much less in your consideration.
But if cost of ownership is your primary consideration, then you’re going to look at the cheapest cars that meet your basic needs, and pick which one is actually cheapest to run. Read more