Wasting gas: An American tradition

In the 1980s, GM didn't see this coming.

Gas prices are going up again, which is inspiring another round of news stories about how people are having to cut back – either by driving less or by spending less in other areas – in order to pay for transportation.

While many argue that higher gas prices, perhaps through a tax increase, are necessary to reduce oil consumption, the problem is that higher prices disproportionately affect the working poor, especially in rural areas.

When gas prices were spiking in 2008, the New York Times put together a graphic showing what percentage of their income people in different parts of the country pay for gasoline. Rural areas in the South, Appalachia and the Great Plains pay the most, while more affluent urban and suburban areas emerge relatively unscathed.

Of course, if our cars collectively got better mileage, as they do in Europe and Japan, the impact wouldn’t be as severe.

In an essay (PDF) highlighted on the Times Green blog yesterday, Vaclav Smil notes that in the U.S., fuel economy actually declined up until the mid-1970s. The CAFE standards introduced in 1973 roughly doubled the fleet average by 1985, and it’s stayed basically flat since then. Smil says Americans’ gasoline consumption, a rate much higher that of other industrialized countries, is inexcusable.

Interestingly, in the mid-1980s, there was actually a movement to repeal the CAFE standards. Automakers argued that consumers wanted bigger cars again now that gasoline was cheaper, and the regulations would harm their competitiveness. A 1985 story on this effort makes a rather prescient prediction:

If the world oil market tightened, gas-guzzling automobiles could mean enormous costs for the nation, perhaps a new oil crisis. … Keeping the fuel economy standards in place is seen by backers of the standards as a sensible hedge against an uncertain future.

But the automakers, understandably, were focused on their bottom line. In a commentary published in 1988, Robert Stempel, president of General Motors warned that Japanese automakers were poised to crush their American counterparts. But not for the reason you might think:

Japanese and other small-car producers face no CAFE restraints. And they are going after this large-car market segment aggressively, including plans to bring in cars with V-8 engines. (emphasis mine)

So basically, the automakers wanted to repeal the mileage standards so they could engage the Japanese toe-to-toe in the market for luxury sedans and musclecars.

Makes you wonder how the transportation decisions we make today will be seen in 25 years.

Photo by FaceMePLS via Creative Commons

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