Editorial: Fueling debate

Back in 2012, President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency mandated the nation’s auto manufacturers meet a fleetwide average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

The mandate, in essence, forces auto manufacturers to build small cars that consumers don’t want — many of which end up in rental fleets — especially as gasoline prices have stabilized. As Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, “The Big Three, left to their own devices, would surely specialize in those vehicles on which they make money.”

But much of the business of today’s auto industry involves appeasing federal bureaucrats. And earlier this week, the EPA refused to back off the tougher mileage standards. Regulators admitted that most automakers aren’t on track to meet the 54 mpg mark thanks to consumer preference for SUVs and pickups. But agency officials insisted that auto engineers still have the technological know-how to make it happen.

This is folly, especially given the EPA’s antiquated testing standards allow the agency to inflate the true mileage figures.

According to the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, the agency must use the same procedures for today’s passenger automobiles that it used for vehicles produced in 1975. As Wired magazine pointed out recently, the 1975 test assumes drivers never encounter stop-and-go traffic, never use their air conditioning, never drive in temperatures colder than 68 degrees, and would limit themselves to 48 mph on the Interstate. And, if drivers ever did hit 60 mph, they’d take 20 seconds to do it.

In short, the magazine surmised, “the EPA tests like your grandfather.”

While on-board computers, hybrid cars and turbocharged engines help auto manufacturers get decent mileage results in the lab, the results drop off significantly when America’s demanding drivers and varied driving conditions are considered.

In recent years, automakers have utilizing improved aerodynamics, lighter materials and new features such as stop-start technologies to boost fuel economy. There are about 100 vehicles on the market today compliant with 2025 fuel economy standards, so Americans who want those cars have plenty of choices.

President Obama can continue to lean on auto manufacturers to produce the tiniest and most fuel-efficient vehicles all he wants, but a healthy auto industry demands that consumer preference rather than federal diktats drive the market.

Instead of being forced to spend billions of dollars to create cars that Americans don’t buy, Detroit should be free to pour that money into improving the fuel efficiency of cars that Americans actually want.

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