Al Lewis: It Gets Expensive Fueling a Debate With $4 Gas

Four-dollar gasoline affords America a unique opportunity to ram tougher new fuel-efficiency and emissions standards up Big Auto's tailpipes.

The Consumer Federation of America on Monday released a survey that shows most Republicans, Democrats and independents agree that the federal government should force auto makers to meet an average 60 miles-per-gallon standard by 2025.

The study said consumers also overwhelmingly support this standard whether they live in the 14 states that follow California's more stringent emission standards or whether they live in the auto-producing states of Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

The higher cost of these cars would be offset by lower fuel costs over five years. And the tough new standard would be reached incrementally, via 6% annual improvements, to curb America's petroleum addiction.

Had we adopted a similar standard a decade ago, consumers would be spending about $600 less per year on fuel today, the study said.

Now, we all know the drill: Some do-gooder proposes new automobile standards, auto makers say they're impossible to meet and pretty soon we've got half of America complaining about government interference in the free market, and the proposal gets watered down.

These politics are over, declared Mark Cooper, research director for the nonprofit association of nearly 300 consumer groups.

"Any antigovernment fervor that is presumed to exist in the United States today, apparently does not extend to fuel-economy standards," he said, based on the survey results.

"Pain at the pump, along with the country's oil-import dependence, has produced a growing consensus that the federal government should substantially increase fuel-economy standards," Cooper said. "We now have a unique opportunity to make these improvements."

Annual household expenditures for gasoline have risen from less than $2,000 in 2009 to more than $3,000 today, the Consumer Federation reports. In that time, auto makers have been shuttering truck and SUV plants and ratcheting up plants for more fuel-efficient cars.

In 2008, there were 14 automobile models that got more than 30 mpg, the federation said. This year, there are 60.

And sales data show that as fuel prices rise, car buyers have become more willing to pay more for fuel efficiency knowing they'll make up the costs at the pump.

Some of this came about as the line between the federal government and the auto makers blurred amid the auto-industry bailouts and government incentive programs. Some of it came from market forces.

Some say it was government regulations that destroyed the auto makers. Other say auto makers did a fine job of destroying themselves by fighting market demands for better fuel efficiency.

Trying to get a read on consumer demand hasn't been easy, but Cooper boiled it down to this: "Americans love their SUVs, and they'll love them a lot more if they get 40 miles per gallon."

Still, it is difficult to believe the world has changed as much as the Consumer Federation survey suggests. And it would be a rare moment in history if auto makers accepted any new fuel standards without a fight.

"You will hear tremendous opposition to this proposal," said Jack Gillis, public-affairs director for the federation and author of "The Car Book."

"But these are the same companies that said years ago we couldn't put air bags in our cars because that would be too expensive.....Now, there's nary an ad for a car that doesn't tout its safety requirements as well as its air-bag performance."

It's almost as if auto makers need the government to tell them what to do.

"Any car company that doesn't jump on the bandwagon and make extraordinary efforts to improve their fuel efficiency is going to be tremendously disadvantaged," Gillis said. "Not only in the U.S. but in the global economy."

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at or