Friday, August 26, 2005

CAFÉ STANDARDS: by Russ

I grew up on a farm. That means I learned to drive a pickup truck in a pasture at the tender age of 10 or 11. I’ve always enjoyed the versatility of pickup trucks, whether you’re hauling a load of drywall to a construction site, or hauling kegs of Meister Brau to your high school graduation kegger & hog roast. Two years ago, I saw an ad in a local carshopper magazine that caught my eye. A 1972 Chevy C10 pickup, with a lightly tweaked 350 motor, 2WD tranny & a full towing package soon came to live at our house. Two years ago gas was less than $1.50 a gallon, and the 11 miles per gallon “Cowboy” gets on the open road wasn’t a hardship (“Cowboy” comes from the fact that my truck is orange with black trim, with orange & black being the school colors of the Oklahoma State University Cowboys). Fast forward to August 2005, and the $2.50 our local stations are getting for a gallon of ethanol blend (about $0.07 less than straight gas here in Iowa) means that “Cowboy” sees the open road infrequently. It still gets to go down to the hardware store on Saturday, and the dogs still get to ride up front with “the boss” when they get to visit the farm on the weekend, but the days of just hopping in the truck & driving 40 miles to Des Moines on a whim are on hold for the time being.

I bring this up because the new CAFÉ standards are going to require automakers to increase the average mileage for their fleets over the next few years. I’m not sure if the libertarian in me likes government mandating what its citizens can drive, but I do believe that driving the most efficient vehicle that does the job is smart policy. The only disagreement I could possibly have with the CAFÉ standards is that this smart policy should be consumer-driven instead of government-mandated.

Much of the current weeping & gnashing of teeth related to gas prices fails to gain any sympathy from my perspective. Unless you live 40 miles off the nearest paved road on the Upper Peninsula, your purchase of a 4x4 Durango or Expedition falls into the category of “caveat emptor” and I. Don’t. Want. To. Hear. About. It.

Just for “fun” (hey, I’m an engineer – we do these kinds of things on a whim), I ran some numbers for gasoline consumption of the vehicles parked in our driveway. I used gas prices of $2.50/gallon, yearly vehicle use of 12,000 miles/year (6,000 for motorcycles), and no provisions for tires, mechanical expenses, insurance or finance payments – this is strictly the cost of keeping the engine fed. I divided the yearly costs by twelve to obtain the average monthly costs (six for cycles to allow for winter storage).

1991 Subaru Loyale wagon (beater vehicle for work): 20 mpg – 600 gallons/year - $125/month.

1972 Chevy C10 pickup (my forbidden love): 10 mpg – 1200 gallons/year - $250/month.

1998 Subaru Forrester (our “Sunday go-to-meetin’ car”): 25 mpg – 480 gallons/year - $100/month.

2000 Kawasaki W650 (my everyday motorcycle): 45 mpg – 134 gallons/year - $56/month.

“The Lovely Janis” drives a state fleet Taurus that runs on E85 (let’s save that discussion for another time), so we don’t have to pay for her work-related expenses.

My conclusions? I believe that vehicles like my Chevy (oversized SUV’s, tweaked muscle cars, etc.) can only function in an environment of high-priced gas if they have specific functions that a smaller vehicle cannot perform. Trucks, cargo vans & SUV’s owned by businesses need to be what they are to do their jobs, but these vehicles will probably lose ground to “smarter” choices as consumers vote with their pocketbooks. Even when these vehicles stay in service, their owners will drive alternatives whenever they can do so. Eventually, “gas-guzzler” vehicles that don’t serve specific functions will fall out of favor with soccer moms & yuppie dads. The cost differential between cars with “okay” mileage like our beater and “good” mileage like our Forrester is small, so as the average mileage of America’s vehicles increases, the financial incentives to buy vehicles one step higher in the spectrum will decrease. Motorcycles will continue to be mileage leaders, but hybrids will start to move into their territory as technology improves.

Of course, if gas bottoms out & goes back to $10 a barrel, all this talk is just mental masturbation.
-Russ from Winterset, House Contributor

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