Eric Peters

If the government decides to pass a law requiring that McDonalds sell only low-fat chicken breast wraps and diet soda, the result would be more business for Wendy's and Burger King -- and empty stores for McDonalds.

So it is with H.R. 1506, the Fuel Economy Reform Act, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Ed Markey and GOP Rep. Todd Platts to impose a 35-mpg fuel efficiency requirement on the auto industry.

The legislation differs from previous fuel economy standards in that it would apply to both passenger cars and "light trucks" -- a category of vehicle that includes pick-ups, SUVs and minivans -- and which has up to now been held to a separate (and less stringent) fuel economy standard of 21.5-mpg vs. 27.5-mpg for passenger cars.

As a result, Markey-Platt would disproportionately hurt American car companies, which have their profit centers in large pick-ups and SUVs -- while giving a competitive leg-up to imports, which make most of their money selling smaller, inherently more economical passenger cars.

It's much easier to tweak the design of a compact or mid-sized front-wheel-drive passenger car with a four or six-cylinder engine that already gets 32 mpg to the 35 mpg mark than it is to get a full-size, V-8 powered truck or SUV from 20-something mpg to 35 mpg. Thus, the impact of the Markey-Platts bill will hurt American car companies most where they are especially vulnerable -- at a time when they can least afford another legislative knee-capping.

GM, Ford and Chrysler have all posted alarming losses recently, even as the quality and appeal of their vehicles has been on the upswing. Hitting them with a 35-mpg fuel economy edict would have the same effect as sucker punching someone already laid low by the flu.

Of course, it's easy to wag a finger at "wasteful" pick-ups and SUVs from the halls of Congress -- and the editorial pages of big city newspapers. But the fact is many people (farmers, people with trailers to pull or large families to haul, contractors, etc.) simply need these kinds of vehicles -- and nothing else will do. You can't tow 9,000 pounds with a Camry. Sometimes, miles-per-gallon is not the sole reason for buying a vehicle.

Nor should it be.

And moreover, 35-mpg (and more) vehicles have been available for many years -- since the 1980s, in fact. But the market for these vehicles has always been limited, because to achieve high mileage, other attributes -- size, power and capability -- have to be sacrificed. Not everyone (or even many of us) want to drive around in a car the size of a Toyota Tercel. Some do, of course -- and the automakers have several models available to meet that need. But should Washington be force-feeding such cars on an unwilling marketplace?

Eric Peters

Eric Peters is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Houston Chronicle, National Review, Detroit Free Press and Detroit News.

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