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New CAFE Rules Will Create Social Engineering--Good.

A combination of permanently higher oil prices and the CAFE standards announced by the Department of Transportation today—automakers will have to reach higher levels by 2015 on their way to the 35 mpg average they have to reach by 2020—should really start to re-engineer the U.S. auto fleet for the better.

My colleague David Welch calls the target automakers have to hit by 2015 the “Europeanization” of the U.S. auto industry. He’s right. And what Europe did through higher fuel taxes was to re-engineer the auto fleet for the common good—-lower air pollution, especially in the cities. Some people call it social engineering. That has a bad ring to many Americans—like socialized medicine. But it will be a good thing.

What we will see in the coming years will be controversial to many. There will be a bigger trade to smaller vehicles. Ford Expedition owners will trade to Ford Edges and Ford Flexes, or even Mazda6 wagons, all of which get between 30% and 40% better fuel economy than the Expedition. And that’s before, perhaps, some percentage of those vehicles could be offered in plug-in or clean diesel versions. I’m figuring to trade my 6 cylinder BMW wagon by the first quarter of 2009 for a VW four-cylinder clean diesel Jetta. My fuel economy will go up roughly 100%, from the low 20s to the low 40s.

A lot of buyers of full-sized pickups will seriously examine whether they need a Ford F150 or Chevy Silverado. Contractors, plumbers, electricians, will examine whether they can get by with Toyota Tacomas, or even the clean diesel Mahindra pickups that are hitting the U.S. market in 2009. Many who just don’t need all the brawn of the F150 will be compelled to trade, or, perhaps, not be able to get one because Ford will only be able to manufacture a finite number of pickups. That will raise the price of F150s. Ford will get a better price. Truck buyers will grumble. And members of Congress will not have to be blamed for passing a gas tax, as Europe did. The tax will be levied on the vehicle, and charged for by the automakers. And so they will get the blame.

The statistics on how we use our vehicles add up to a study in waste. Eighty-percent of Americans drive fewer than 35 miles a day, and 25% of all trips are under a mile. Between 70% and 80% of Americans drive alone. More than 90% of trips made by SUVs are performing the same duty as a passenger car, but doing it at half or less than half the fuel economy.

Many people buy SUVs and vans for the dozen times a year they may actually need the utility. I’m thinking it’s those people who will be early traders if they can see the wisdom in renting utility vehicles when they really need them instead of owning them and dragging around weight they don’t need.

Many Americans won’t give up their trucks and SUVs for cars easily, though, there is plenty of evidence that they are doing so already as gas prices climb toward $4.00 per gallon. Many will argue that smaller vehicles are not safe. That’s bull.

And those who want to hang on to their SUVs, including auto executives, will rightly point out that the government has to get as tough and nasty on utility companies as thry are on auto companies—imposing cleaner energy and pollution restrictions on that much larger piece of our national carbon footprint—coal plants.

This CAFE measure, as has been pointed out, is an ass-backwards way to change the carbon footprint of our vehicular fleet. But it’s all we’ve got.

One thing that I believe will take place is this. A lot of people who trade in their Trailblazers, Explorers, Expeditions, Sequoias and Armadas for sporty and more fuel efficient passenger cars will ask themselves, “What was I doing driving that behemoth anyway….this is a lot nicer to drive.”

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