In recognition of today’s proposal of new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, I thought a dive into CAFE history was appropriate. On October 17, 1973 the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised the price of oil 70% and began to cut production. As a result of this sudden WTF were-addicted-to-foreign-oil moment, CAFE was born. The goal of CAFE? Double the fuel economy of vehicles in the U.S. We did just that.
Today, we as a nation decided (or were ordered) to once again undertake the task of doubling our fuel economy. The short of it is, when faced with adversity and up against the wall – we are pretty kickass innovators. The quotes below were pulled from newspapers during the height of fuel economy debates in the 70’s. It’s fascinating to see what people were saying 40 years ago when asked to double vehicle fuel economy and how it compares and contrast to today.
The Windsor Star – Dec 6, 1974 (Massachusetts AP) – “All of these innovations are not new, but they previously wouldn’t pay for themselves during the car’s first year of ownership with fuel savings. When fuel cost 25 to 30 cents a gallon, added costs of the improvements could not be paid for in the car’s firs three years, considered the average time of its first ownership. But that’s all changed with fuel prices more than double that amount” Donald Hurter, director of EPA/DOT study.”
The Toledo Blade – Oct 24, 1974 (Washington AP) – “Interior Secretary Rogers Morton said, “If we don’t get the cooperation we need we will be glad to provide a menu with some tougher turkey. We are going to tell the industry how the government intends to measure the 40 percent increase. We will also ask the industry how they plan to achieve that goal in four years.”
Lakeland Ledger – Feb 2, 1975 (by: Agis Salpuka) -“In the fall of 1925, Charles Kettering, one of the great pioneering engineers of the auto industry, delivered a prophetic paper to a meeting of the American Chemical Society in NYC. The paper was called “Motor Design and Fuel Economy.” Mr. Kettering’s major points: petroleum is a finite resource; supplies could some day run short, posing a catastrophe for the auto industry. The catastrophe could be averted “if motor car fuel economy can be materially increased. Mr. Kettering then outlined the design of a hypothetical car which would yield maximum gas mileage. It would be small, light, streamlined. It would have a high compression engine, an ignition system whose spark would always be property adjusted for speed and load, a four-speed transmission with a system providing for the disengagement of all other gears at fast speed except the high gear. All of these innovations were possible in 1925. Mr. Kettering said while this hypothetical car would have good gas mileage, the public probably would not buy it. It would not produce fast acceleration in high gear. It would not climb hills well. It would lack “that reserve power so much desired in the motoring public.”
The automotive industry has seen considerable changes in the last few years. It will be interesting to see how product lineups evolve to achieve these greener policy goals. Much of the anticipated consumer benefits highlighted by the EPA are savings from higher fuel prices, but make no mention of added cost to vehicle prices. Also, what will come of things like the highway trust fund and other beneficiaries of fuel-based revenues? Will we transition to a pay-per-mile system? If electrification strategies are the key to meeting CAFE goals how will automakers encourage capital investment for charging facilities, price products without federal subsidies and deal with the overwhelming lack of interest from consumers around hybrid technology? These are all questions that must be addressed to move forward and create a sustainable model of personal mobility.