Dog bites robot

Who gets the oil?

The government declares war on small cars

There’s an interesting story in the New York Times today about a new governmental initiative: To get rid of small cars.

The idea, on the surface, is promising. It’s an attempt to reform fuel-economy rules in a way that would potentially decrease auto-makers’ incentives to build massive, paramilitary Hummer-style vehicles. Currently, auto-makers can go to town with the “truck class” monsters, because the fuel standards are pretty lax: Only 20.7 miles per gallon, compared to 27.5 miles per gallon for regular cars. The new rules would be different:

The type of system being considered could eliminate the distinction between cars and light trucks and instead base fuel economy requirements on the weight or size of vehicles.

So automakers would no longer have to build small cars to help reach the average required of all cars. As for the largest sport utilities and pickups, the fuel economy standard could in theory be raised enough to force the automakers to make such vehicles smaller. As a result, fewer vehicles on the road would be either very big or very small.

The really weird thing, though, is the rationale that lurks behind all this:

The idea behind the changes is that such vehicles are safer than both small cars and sport utility vehicles and pickups, and that if more people drove them, fewer people would die in crashes. Producing more such vehicles and fewer very small or very large vehicles would reduce the increasing disparity among American vehicles, both in weight and how high they ride. …

“Large passenger cars and minivans are the safest way to move around large numbers of people,” said Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, the Bush administration’s top auto safety regulator, at a conference in January. “And yet,” he added, referring to the current system of corporate average fuel economy standards, known as CAFE, “we have CAFE-ed large cars out of existence.”

One could scarely ask for more definitive proof of Robert Frank’s amazing thesis in Luxury Fever. In that book, he argues that massive disparities in income are a problem because the pressure to spend trickles down, screwing up the lives of everyone on the lower rungs. If everyone in town starts making buckets of cash, you get screwed: Rent goes up and you’re driven out of town; rich parents blow money on private tutors, lessening your kids’ chance of getting into college; if the CEO wears a $4,000 suit, you’d better show up to the job interview wearing a $1,500 one, even if you can’t afford it. Frank does not argue a massive socialist attack on wealth; he’s pro-capitalist. But he points out that one cannot smugly say that everyone’s business is their own. When others consume profligately, it can actually harm society.

Which brings us back to this super-weird assault on small cars. One of the examples Frank raised in his book is the SUV. When the wealthy begin to drive SUVs, he argued, it forces everyone else to buy one — even if they can’t really afford it — merely to protect themselves from the blitzkrieg assault of the super-loaded careening around in vehicles they can barely control. Back when he wrote it, Frank was accused of being alarmist. But now he seems eerily prophetic. The mass purchase of SUVs by the wealthy has now produced government policy aimed at getting rid of small cars, merely because it’s too lethal to drive them.

Of course, the killer irony is that smaller cars are better than big ones for any number of reasons. You can make a big truck fuel-efficient, but a small one will always beat it. Cities can accomodate more drivers — and, crucially, parkers — with small vehicles. And clearly there’s an economic efficiency argument in allowing a more smooth flow of people in and out of cities.

If this new initiative can genuinely improve fuel efficiency, I’m all for it. But there’s nonetheless a warning in here. As we’ve learned in the last twenty years, wealth may not trickle down very often. But the pressure to spend big always does.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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