Editor's Desk: Unintended Consequences
When the 2012-2016 Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard came into effect, the idea was one most people could agree with: making the most efficient use of our resources. You know, like when you get your paycheck and pay the most urgent bills first; or you try to run all your errands at once to avoid making more than one trip across town; or, when helping a buddy move, you pack the truck as efficiently as possible to minimize the number of trips. The goal with CAFE standards is to improve fuel economy, which in turn means we use less fuel -- and that reduces our dependence on OPEC.
However, I have some concerns about what may be strange consequences from these regulations. With the current standards, the government looks at a combination of footprint-wheelbase multiplied by track width -- and S curve, a graph the EPA uses to determine the goal fuel economy for different-size trucks. Smaller trucks have smaller footprints, and higher EPA requirements. Larger trucks have larger footprints, and require less improvement to meet the requirements. So when it comes to half-tons and heavy-duties, truck manufacturers don't need to make as big strides as they would for compact trucks. Plus, making changes to a truck to improve fuel economy costs money, which adds to the bottom line. That means improving fuel economy in a compact truck would make some compacts more expensive, possibly costing more than base-model full-sizes. The idea was to improve fuel economy for all vehicles, but the result is that it's a lot easier to make half-tons more efficient, and compact trucks are stagnant. So, instead of smaller trucks with much better fuel economy on the road, we have larger trucks that are becoming somewhat more efficient -- not a bad result, but it is kind of strange.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is writing a new set of regulations that will affect trucks produced from 2017 to 2025. Goals for this time span for light trucks and SUVs are 3.5-percent improvement per year from 2017 to 2021, then a 5-percent per-year improvement from 2022 to 2025. But there are incentives (read: lower fuel-economy requirements) for low-emissions and fuel-efficient technologies -- except that one thing that would make a huge difference is diesel engines. And diesels don't qualify for the incentives, even though EVs and hybrids do. By not encouraging diesels, NHTSA is essentially discouraging them, which eliminates a very good way to make a vehicle more fuel-efficient. You can expect that trucks in the not-so-distant future will be powered by smaller-displacement turbocharged engines, such as the V-6 EcoBoost in the F-150. Chevrolet is already looking into something similar for its half-ton Silverado. As we've experienced, the EcoBoost is a terrific engine, but it's strange that diesels aren't encouraged. Someday, diesel/electric hybrids could offer the best of both technologies' worlds -- electric power around town, diesel power on long road trips.
Other fuel-economy improments include using more high-strength steel and lighter components to reduce weight and improve fuel economy. NHTSA is considering a change from "footprint" to "shadow" to determine a vehicle's size category. If this becomes part of CAFE, it could cause repercussions. The shadow is length times width times height, and that could allow an automaker to add bodywork to make a truck bigger while keeping track width and wheelbase the same, thus easing fuel-economy-improvement requirements. It could lead to a lot of goofy-looking compact trucks with extra-long noses and bumpers.
The push for improved fuel economy is going to hit big-rigs and heavy-duty trucks as well. By 2018, the goal is a 23-percent reduction in fuel consumption for big-rigs, 15 percent for heavy-duty trucks and vans, and 10 percent for school buses.
When truckers buy new trucks, they'll pay for the new technology at the lot, which means smaller companies may not be able to afford new models. That could mean anyone who buys anything that's shipped by ground (groceries, tools, etc.) may pay for that new technology as well. If companies have higher costs when shipping, the cost would be passed along to consumers. Do these regulations also affect trucks based in other countries? If not, will some companies use trucks registered in other countries as a cost-saving measure? How will these regulations be enforced?
As each year passes and the require-ments keep piling on, it'll be interesting to see how manufacturers continue to meet the 3.5- and then 5-percent fuel economy improvements. It's safe to say that trucks -- half-ton and larger -- are going to get more expensive, which could boost demand for used trucks and shrink the market for new ones.
I hope these rules bring out the very best in us, and that engineers come up with more efficient solutions that preserve the capability truck buyers need. But if one of the ways to improve fuel economy is by reducing weight of components, and if that in turn reduces a truck's capability, it could defeat the entire purpose of the new CAFE regulations.
Consider again the example of helping your friend move. What may have been achieved a few years ago with three trips could take several more under the new regulations, and all that driving would mean you would burn more fuel. That's probably not what they're aiming for.