And that, ultimately, is what the Markey-Platts bill is all about.
People already have a number of choices in the 35-mpg and more category -- including the latest generation of gas-electric hybrid SUVs, like Ford's Escape. True, it may cost them extra to get the additional 5-10 mpg -- as in the case of the hybrid Escape, which costs about $3,000 more than the standard, gas-only version of this vehicle. Or they may have to drive a smaller, less powerful/capable vehicle -- like the new class of "B-car" subcompacts, including the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris or Chevy's Aveo.
But the point is, the options are already out there -- no legislation required.
But if the Markey-Platts bill becomes law, these options will become a mandate -- and we'll all have to pay in one form or another. The add-on cost of the necessary research and development, specialized technology (everything from advanced engine designs to hybrid systems, etc.) will be either tacked onto the price tag of larger vehicles, or spread out and hidden in higher across-the-board costs of each automaker's entire product lineup. Maybe the extra 5-10 mpg that could be realized is worth an extra grand or two in "up front" costs. But maybe not.
Shouldn't the choice be the consumer's to make?
And if the market plays its trump card and simply decides to say "thanks, but no" -- electing not to buy these more efficient but also more expensive vehicles -- it will mean reduced shareholder value and ultimately, plant closings and job losses for the auto industry. Even a relatively small decrease in demand for new vehicles -- say 5 percent or so -- could be absolutely devastating to an already shaky industry, with American brands suffering the most.
Backers of the Markey-Platts proposal seem rather cavalier about these potential repercussions. Perhaps it's easy to dismiss concerns about what could amount to as much as several thousand dollars in add-on costs per vehicle (2,3) when you're a six-figure DC lawmaker, activist or editorial writer. But for the average person in this country, that kind of money is a big deal indeed.
We all want more efficient vehicles -- but the issue's more complex than waving a legislative wand and making it so. Concern over fuel prices should not lead to ill-considered lawmaking -- or political grandstanding.
Hopefully, wiser heads will prevail.
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.