Back in 1974, when Congress was about to impose tough fuel economy standards for cars, a Ford (NYSE:F - News) executive told lawmakers that doing so would require "a Ford product line consisting of either all sub-Pinto sized vehicles or some mix of vehicles ranging from a sub-subcompact to perhaps a Maverick."
These smaller cars, the industry warned, would have a dramatic impact on safety.
Advocates scoffed, parading Ford claim as proof of how misguided automakers are. But the executive was spot on. By 1988, Ford's Lincoln Continental — once the epitome of a large car — had shrunk to almost precisely the size and weight of the 1974 four-door compact Maverick.
Other U.S. automakers slashed the size of cars in the late 1970s and early 1980s to meet federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. (Trucks, vans and SUVs are regulated under a separate, less restrictive standard.)
This had deadly consequences. The National Research Council found that the CAFE standards cost up to 2,600 lives in 1993 alone. A USA Today report concluded that CAFE had killed 46,000 people by 1999.
Now the Obama administration is advocating another aggres sive boost in fuel economy standards, possibly to as high as 56.2 miles per gallon — or nearly double today's standard — by 2025.
Once again advocates are dismissing automakers' warnings. Consumer Federation of America's Mark Cooper says that even a 60 mpg standard is "reasonable, eminently achievable and strongly supported by the public."
Can't Drive 55 (MPG)
But just two cars widely available — the all-electric Nissan (OTCPK:NSANY) Leaf and the Chevy (NYSE:GM - News) Volt plug-in — exceed 56.2 mpg. Hybrids like the Toyota (NYSE:TM - News) Prius only make it to 50 mpg. Plus, despite what the public might say in polls, just 4% buy high-mileage cars.
Regulators and outside groups claim improved CAFE standards — which now mandate separate fuel economy goals based on a car's "footprint" — can help automakers hit far tougher goals without a huge safety penalty.
"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has done a good job of balancing the need to increase fuel efficiency with safety using this new approach," said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
But there's no guarantee the improved standards will be less deadly. When automakers agreed with the Obama administration to hike CAFE standards to 35.5 mpg by 2016 via the reformed approach, NHTSA's "worst case" scenario put the death toll at more than 1,000.
NHTSA admits that mandating 56.2 mpg will push automakers to "invest in mass reduction and in new smaller vehicle designs."
CAFE advocates say the government can simply pile on safety mandates to offset any size or weight reduction. But while safety features help, they can't erase the gap between large and small cars, IIHS research shows. The smallest, lightest cars still have death rates about twice as high as those of the largest, heaviest ones.
"If CAFE were a private product, it would be recalled immediately," said Sam Kazman of the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Other problems: The 56.2 mpg CAFE standard could add $9,000 to a car's price, far more than drivers could expect to save in lower fuel costs, according to a recent Center for Automotive Research study. That would spur consumers to hang onto old cars longer. The Consumer Federation of America disputes CAR's findings.
New standards could also force technologies into cars before they are ready, Edmunds.com CEO Jeremy Anwyl warns. The last CAFE hikes, he wrote recently, "resulted in a generation of what were often truly awful vehicles."
Anwyl says a gas tax hike is a more efficient, faster and cheaper way to improve fuel economy than CAFE mandates.