You might not think that something called "Cafe standards" would be fightin words sounds like something the Health Department would enforce, and everyone would support.
But CAFE means Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency. Its a legal requirement for automakers to make their products use fuel efficiently. After the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, this was the primary means employed to reduce the United States use of gasoline. The goal: double fuel efficiency by 1985, to 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg). Congress decreed that the Department of Transportation set the CAFE standards based on technological feasibility, economic practicability, the effect of other standards (such as safety) on fuel economy, and the nations need to conserve energy.
That last ones a killer, or at least it was after Ronald Reagan swept into office in 1980 and the perceived need to cut energy use declined. You see, Congress had mandated getting to 27.5 mpg by 1985 for passenger cars, but said DOT could make changes after that. Those changes actually lowered the mileage requirements, but in 1990 the standard was reset to 27.5 mpg, where it remains.
However, theres a big part of the U.S. fleet that wasnt covered by that standard: pickup trucks, SUVs, minivans and other vehicles not considered "passenger cars." They only had to hit 20.7 mpg.
After the Clinton administration took office in 1992, Clinton cut a deal with the auto industry to this effect: We wont push to tighten these efficiency standards if you will agree with plenty of help from federal coffers to research super-energy-efficient vehicles. The automakers agreed.
More than a decade later, they had produced cars that could go 80 miles on a single gallon of gas. But there was never any legally enforceable requirement to actually produce these cars. And the automakers didnt. They said using the super-light-weight materials they had developed would add $7,000 to $10,000 to the cost of a family sedan.
President George W. Bush abandoned that program, known as the Program for a New Generation Vehicle, and instead launched a multi-decade research program to develop a car propelled by a hydrogen-powered fuel cell.
With global warming set to go off the charts, environmental activists want to do what worked before, and tighten CAFE standards. Opponents, including automakers, argue that such a move would make cars too expensive and, because they would be lighter and smaller, more dangerous.
As debates wage on, some consumers are taking matters into their own hands by checking out less-thirsty vehicles. Edmunds.com reports that the next Toyota Prius model, due in 2009, may exceed 100 mpg.
For more info:
Check your cars fuel efficiency here: www.fueleconomy.gov/.
For comparison, see the rating for a 2004 Toyota Prius here: www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/noframes/19813.shtml/
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