The new CAFE.

Our wise leaders have once again decided that they can shape reality or perhaps in a more sinister sense decided what we should drive. Regardless if this is their own arrogance, their own egos telling them they can rewrite the laws of physics, chemistry, and engineering to suit their agendas or their desire for power over every aspect of our lives the new corporate average fuel economy targets will have an effect on what sort of vehicles we will be allowed to purchase.

A big deal has been made of the ‘closing of the SUV loophole’. The SUV loophole being that light trucks had a different and lower requirement than passenger. Back in the 1970s the only people who drove trucks were the people who needed trucks for business or recreational purposes. Those who created the legislation had the large passenger car in mind as their target so the light trucks were spared. The problem is that government had no concern for the actual market. What people wanted from their vehicles was of no concern to the ruling class. Automakers were either lazy and cheap and refused to build more fuel efficient vehicles or those in DC had the right to tell us what we could drive for our own good.

The SUV as it is called today has existed in the US vehicle market since at least the 1940s when Willy’s decided to try and market vehicles based on its famous design for the US military. There may be earlier examples of enclosed trucks designed for off-road and passenger use. From time to time I find earlier examples of certain things and I feel I should leave the possibility that there is an even earlier example of the “SUV”. From the 1940s through the 1970s and much of the 1980s the enclosed truck was a niche vehicle for outdoors men, ranchers, farmers, and construction companies. These trucks were few and far between.

Until I was in high school in the back half of the 1980s the only people I knew who had one was a family that did a lot of camping. The father ran the local Boy Scouts. It made sense as neighbors had bent the frame on their small car by towing a little pop trailer with the family in the car. This small car had been a replacement for the large Ford station wagon they had previously.

In the late 80s I became interested in various things automotive. I was noticing a lot more of these trucks were on the road. Additionally there were many more pickup trucks. Sales figures shown in automotive publications showed this was not just a local thing, something happening market wide. It would take a few more years before the media would catch on.

In 1985 the last step of the original 1970s Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards had kicked in. The early steps of CAFÉ resulted in the cars being downsized somewhat but there was little loss in capability. This final step however meant big changes. GM had eliminated nearly all of their full size models. Classic names like the Oldsmobile Delta 88 were now on smaller front wheel drive cars that were simply shadows of the previous versions. Things weren’t better at Ford where only the Crown Victoria and its Mercury and Lincoln siblings were left. At Chrysler, no full size sedans or wagons had survived.

The offerings were different. Very different. The problem was, people’s maximum needs for the vehicles didn’t change. Some tried to use the new passenger car offerings, like neighbors I mentioned earlier. The result was breaking the car. Their solution was to buy a large conversion van. Others didn’t even bother trying. They found what the market offered that fit their needs. This is the true rise of the passenger truck.

These mid to late 1980s trucks were still the niche vehicles of decades past. Their interiors were for utility not comfort. They were trucks. They were designed to get dirty and be abused. They drove like trucks. But they could do the things people needed. These vehicles could still seat many adults or a bunch of kids. They could tow things. They could carry cargo. All those things people had to do occasionally that their full size sedans could accomplish but current passenger car offerings could not.

Detroit’s automakers weren’t entirely stupid. They could see the sales figures and they knew what to do to make money. Make the enclosed trucks comfortable. Soon these trucks had interiors not unlike the full size sedans of old. Options not needed by the former market started to appear. The tucks were also made more car like to drive which angered those who wanted them for off-road use. They lost capability as trucks to function as large passenger vehicles.

During this same period was the rise of the mini-van. The mini-van served as light truck replacement for the station wagon (as did some SUVs). Chrysler was the first to successfully market mini-vans but the concept went back to an AMC show vehicle in the 1970s but the company lacked the money to develop it.  One could even say some of the old delivery sedans were early ‘mini-vans’. In any case it was a market reaction to elimination of the full-size station wagon thanks to regulation.

Once light trucks were half the market fleet fuel economy was low. The remaining boring offerings in large passenger cars, which were now just the Ford triplets by the late 1990s, had advanced quite a bit in fuel economy but the fleet average was pathetic thanks to the widespread use of light trucks. The automakers were attacked in the media. SUV owners were attacked. But who was really to blame? Government.

Fast forward to the present. The ‘loophole’ is closed, but have people’s needs changed to the point where they can accept driving small vehicles? Has technology advanced far enough that our rulers can really demand something into being? I would answer ‘no’ to both. Many Americans still want or need large passenger vehicles and while technology has advanced significantly the new mileage requirements will demand the end of the light truck as we know it.

I believe that passenger cars will largely be unchanged. Passenger trucks, light trucks, will go through what passenger cars did in the 1970s. They will lose capability. Dramatically lose capability. Some may become hybrids. They will have issues. They will be compromised. People will look for another alternative.

What will be that alternative? The first thing that comes to mind will be for people to go bigger. They can move into a class of truck that is not covered. These are commercial trucks. At the height of SUV sales marketing people thought that bigger was the way to go. They made SUVs in this class. These were like the full size suburban the scoutmaster had, but somewhat bigger. The market was too small and most vanished for lack of sales. Now they might be seen as the only game in town. The rules have changed and people might put up with these gigantic vehicles over the alternatives. Automakers will respond to it, government will not be happy.

The second alternative I can think of is more radical. It’s actually very environmentally friendly. That is to rebuild old vehicles, to make them like new or even better than new by incorporating new technologies and features. It will be expensive at first, but if it catches on the market will find ways to make it affordable. A worn out SUV can be driven into the shop of a provider and some time later out comes a ‘new’ vehicle with the latest appointments. The savings over constructing a new vehicle environmentally will be large, scarce resources will be conserved. The automakers and the government will not be happy about it.

Should the second alternative occur I feel the government will react quickly to decimate the supply of raw material or possibly even go as far as banning the practice. Government has waged a war on old cars since the 1980s. From clunker laws to ‘cash for clunkers’ government has sought to crush the stock of older vehicles. Automakers have urged it on. The old car hobby has been under attack for decades at local, state, and federal levels. Regular people using the same practices to avoid what our rulers demand of us will bring about renewed and intensive efforts to crush automotive restoration. Their favorite tools of regulation and licensing will be but the first steps.

These are but two possible alternatives, but the market may come up with others. People will not just accept what we are told we must live with. There will be work-arounds. There will be unintended consequences. The market will get vehicles that suit its needs, even if those needs are vastly exceeded, so long as any vestige of a free market exists.