According to common sense, Americans buying vehicles consider gas mileage when gas prices are high and largely ignore it when gas prices are low. As this is being written, gas prices are relatively low and hence gas mileage concerns are probably low on the list of most drivers. As such, it is not surprising that the Trump administration has decided to lower the mileage standards negotiated by the Obama administration and accepted by the vehicle manufacturers. This is also consistent with the Trump administration’s approach of trying to undo what Obama did, primarily because it was done by Obama.
The Trump administration has defended its decision by contending that the standards are “wrong” and by claiming that the standards were set as a matter of politics. One reason in favor of undoing the plan to increase fuel efficiency in cars and light trucks is that the more efficient vehicles would, it is estimated, cost $1,000-$2,000 more. While this is a relatively small percentage of the cost of a new vehicle, for most Americans that is a significant amount of money. As such, there is an economic argument to be made against these standards. This economic argument can be retooled into a moral argument: saving consumers money is the right thing to do.
Of course, there is far more to the cost of a vehicle than the cost of purchase and the most obvious is the cost of fuel. The 2012 estimate was that the increased efficiency would save roughly $8,000 over the life of the vehicle. Based on the lower 2016 prices, this saving would average out to about $4,000. While gas prices can vary greatly, it is very likely that increased fuel efficiency would more than offset increased vehicle costs. As such, the long-term economic argument favors keeping the Obama administration’s target. As before, this can be retooled into a moral argument that saving Americans money is a good thing.
Fuel efficiency does, however, have the potential of decreasing the profits of the fuel industry. To illustrate, if an efficient vehicle saves me $4,000 over its life, then that is $4,000 that does not go into the industry coffers. While few would shed tears over lost profits for the industry executives, the impact on the average people working in the industry must also be considered. If the harm done to these people outweighs the good done for the consumers, then the lower standards would be morally wrong. However, it seems unlikely that the savings to consumers would cause more harm than good. In addition to the economic concerns and the associated ethical worries, there are also concerns about health.
While the Trump administration does not seem to care about the harmful effects of pollution, about 50,000 deaths each year result from the air pollution caused by traffic. There are also many non-lethal health impacts of this pollution, such as asthma. Increased fuel efficiency means that vehicles burn less fuel for the miles they travel, thus reducing the air pollution they produce per mile. Because of this, increasing fuel efficiency will reduce fatalities caused by air pollution. This health argument can be retooled easily into a moral argument: increasing fuel efficiency reduces pollution deaths and, on utilitarian grounds, this would be morally good.
It is, of course, reasonable to raise the question of how significant the reduction in deaths would be and arguments can be advanced to try to show that the reduction in pollution would not be significant enough to justify increasing fuel efficiency on these grounds. It also should be noted that we, as a people, tolerate roughly 40,000 vehicle deaths per year as the cost of operating our vehicles and roads as we do. As such, continuing to tolerate deaths from air pollution is also an option. For those not swayed by health concerns, in the past, there have been national security and economic arguments advanced for increasing fuel efficiency and they can still be applied today.
One stock argument is that increased fuel efficiency will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and thus make us safer in various ways. This security argument can also be re-painted as a moral argument based on the good consequences of increased security. Another stock argument is based on the claim that buying foreign oil increases our trade deficit and this is economically harmful to the United States. Because of the negative consequences, this argument can also be refit as a moral argument in favor of increasing fuel efficiency. Given the Trump administration’s professed obsession with national security and trade deficits, these arguments should be appealing to them.
Given the above arguments, there are excellent reasons to maintain the goal of increasing the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks. While there are some reasons to not do so, such as helping the gas industry maintain profits, this would be the wrong choice.