Hey, over here! Obama’s fuel efficiency sideshow

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Updated Feb 27, 2014

President Obama glibly referred to the new fuel standards he recently called for as a “win-win-win.” That’s reducing oil imports, pollution and fuel costs.

The cost-saving element is what appeals the most and, for those in trucking, raises eyebrows. Truck buyers have grown weary of round after round of emissions standards, each adding thousands of dollars and extra maintenance costs to every new truck. 

Adequate highway funding would yield “significant improvements in fuel burn and productivity,” wrote Werner’s Derek Leathers.Adequate highway funding would yield “significant improvements in fuel burn and productivity,” wrote Werner’s Derek Leathers.

It’s easy to set a miles-per-gallon goal and conjure up a huge windfall. What got little emphasis from the administration’s side was the cost of meeting that goal.

A Consumer Federation of America study that informed this initiative assumes many solutions ripe for the picking. It asks: “Why don’t market forces drive these technologies into the vehicles?”

The attempted answer involves a ponderous discussion of “externalities” that influence manufacturers, such as “lack of credible information.” This is illustrated by an equally ponderous diagram: “Interaction of supply and demand side factors in a recursive loop inhibiting investment in efficiency.”

All of which seems to say: The private sector is a hopeless victim of this cruel loop that inhibits technology investments, so the omniscient government must come to the rescue.

Finally, after giving no specifics on technology costs, the study concludes: “The energy saving technologies will be more than be recouped in lower fuel costs.”

How can they tell? Well, they just … know.

What they really do know, and downplay, is how much fuel efficiency and emissions have improved over the last decade or two. Also downplayed is that the industry has no shortage of incentives to keep improving fuel efficiency, as long as the answers make financial and operational sense.

Yes, government mandates can forcibly accelerate results, and they were necessary to achieve today’s emissions levels. But the wisdom of a mandated rush to achieve an arbitrary miles-per-gallon target is another thing.

There’s much more to be gained regarding fuel use and emissions by improving our crumbling, cramped infrastructure, as Werner Enterprises President Derek Leathers said in response to the Obama announcement. Adequate highway funding would yield “significant improvements in fuel burn and productivity,” he wrote.

The American Highway Users Alliance has documented that  “congestion wastes billions of gallons of fuel each year and creates pollution hotspots at highway bottlenecks.” Billions is no exaggeration. Bringing infrastructure up to snuff would achieve not only Obama’s trifecta, but also take care of a problem that can’t be procrastinated indefinitely.

After more than five years in office, the president finally announced today an ambitious $302 billion transportation infrastructure plan. I hope he has the tenacity to stick with it. The politics are extraordinarily complex, even by D.C. standards, given that responsibilities for funding, building and maintaining highways overlap between the feds and states, and even municipalities. Plus the big increase in private funding of roads, sometimes controversial, has further muddied the waters.

Nevertheless, the responsibility for overseeing essential, publicly shared resources comes with the job description of president. He doesn’t need to dodge it, diverting the public’s attention by endlessly micro-managing a private energy sector that’s on the right track.





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