“All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” - Battlestar Galactica
In just eight years, auto manufacturers are expected to achieve an average fuel economy of 54 MPG across their fleets. Of course, the manufacturers are claiming that this is impossible. Despite Obama’s EPA making their best efforts to etch this in stone at the end of his administration, the business friendly Trump administration has already pledged to roll back this requirement. But when I look at the big picture, I see that this is just one phase of a larger cycle - one that has occurred time and time again when the government has imposed new standards on manufacturers not only for fuel economy, but for emissions as well, and even required safety equipment.
1. New Requirements
The cycle begins when the government places some new requirement on the auto industry. It could be for 54 MPG cars. It could be for lower emissions to prevent New York City from becoming the smoggy health hazard it was in the 1960s. It could be for seat belts to prevent ejection from cars in a crash, or for air bags to provide further protection for belted or unbelted occupants. Whatever it is, the government sees a need, and tells auto manufacturers to do it.
2. “That’s Impossible!”
Auto manufacturers band together and tell the government, “That’s impossible! We can’t do that!” They claim that whatever the government wants is technologically unfeasible, impossible, or both. They don’t want the significant burden and expense of developing this new technology when they could be devoting those resources toward developing more horsepower, or adding cupholders, or introducing a seventeenth crossover to their product line. This is where we are today when it comes to the Obama administration’s 54 MPG by 2025 requirement.
3. Requirements Reduced
The government backs off. They accept the manufacturers’ explanations that what they expect isn’t feasible, and either give the manufacturers more time to comply, reduce the requirements, or both. After all, they’re politicians, not engineers. How are they to know how difficult it is to design and implement the new equipment? Or maybe the auto manufacturer lobby contributed significantly to their campaigns, making them quite sympathetic to their concerns. Whatever the reason, the government hears the automakers’ objections, and grants some concessions. This is what the Trump administration is working out a way to do right now.
4. Do It Anyway
Finally, when enough is enough, the government puts their foot down. No more reductions or extensions - these new requirements WILL be met by this date, OR ELSE. Fines, or not being able to sell cars due to not meeting requirements, is bad for business. So the manufacturers finally buckle down and do it anyway, despite their earlier objections.
5. Do It Badly
Or do they? When I met my first wife, her daily driver was a 1971 Chevy Nova. Pretty cool - except for the seat belts. They were cumbersome and impossible to use. No three-point retractor like we have today. There were actually two separate belts - a lap belt that you cinched tight, and a shoulder belt that hung down from the roof and latched into the buckle with the lap belt, and cinched tight in a similar way. It was awkward. It was uncomfortable. It was easier to use only the lap belt, which was totally possible and what we usually did, despite the risks. That’s how terrible the ‘71 Nova’s seat belts were.
Like a toddler having a temper tantrum, once manufacturers are finally forced to meet the new requirements, they do it as half assedly as possible - meeting the letter of the law, but at great inconvenience to the driver. The Nova’s seat belts are a perfect example. So is emissions equipment that gave us a 1973 Corvette with just 190 horsepower. 190! People complain that the 200hp FR-S/BRZ/86 is way underpowered (I disagree), and here was a freaking Corvette with even less. And that’s not a slam on the Corvette - it was still among the most powerful new American cars available at the time. And don’t get me started on automatic seat belts, a stop-gap measure that delayed the introduction of air bags. There were motorized ones that would strangle you if you stuck your head in an open window to turn the ignition on (trust me on that). There were traditional seat belts installed in the doors that you were expected to leave latched and crawl under, thereby making them “automatic” - because doors never fall open during a crash, right? I don’t know how these were ever legal. Maybe this is a passive aggressive effort to convince the government that their requirements really are unfeasible and impractical by making the implementation as difficult as possible.
6. Do It Right
Finally, when consumers complain and the government still doesn’t back off on their requirements, they do what they should have done in the first place - implement the requirements properly. The result is cars like this 2015 Volkswagen GTI, shown here passing the extremely difficult IIHS small overlap crash test. The seat belts work well. Multiple air bags inflate to protect the driver without blowing his head clean off like Dirty Harry Callahan and early air bags did. The GTI does this while meeting modern emissions requirements (Dieselgate did not affect gasoline powered cars), achieving 24 MPG city / 32 MPG highway, and generating 210hp - more than the 1973 Corvette.
So if you’re concerned about owning beachfront property in Richmond, VA and the states of Delaware and Florida being completely underwater by the end of the century, stay concerned, but don’t be paranoid when it comes to the relaxed fuel economy requirements likely under the current administration. It’s all just part of the cycle of requirements and resistance. If history is any indication, the requirements will win in the end.