The recent announcement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requiring an average mpg of 54.5 by 2025 for cars and trucks to sold in the United States is good news for environmentalists.
It could be bad news for boaters, though – especially those who enjoy anything larger than a canoe or kayak.
Tow vehicles capable of pulling even flats boats that get that kind of mileage do not exist – and possibly never will. It's true that past increases in mileage requirements have, for the most part, not caused the problems many of us expected with towing larger boats because manufacturers are allowed to make some vehicles that do not meet the standards if they produce enough that do.
There still are some big V8 trucks around that can handle towing larger boats – and plenty of V6s capable of pulling the typical grouper rig, bass boat, ski boat or flats or bay boat and still get 20 mpg highway or better when the boat is left at home.
The reason those trucks are still allowed is the federal CAFÉ standard. Corporate Average Fuel Economy allows a limited number of higher-torque, lower mpg vehicles for each company if the average of all the vehicles they sell meets the standard. And it's not a simple average, either. Ford, for example, still sells more pickups than anything else and, under the Byzantine accounting system allowed by the program, can meet the standard.
Don't ask me how this works. I'm guessing it was figured out by a couple hundred auto-industry lobbyists, bureaucrats and legislators on a junket to Bali. In any case, it has allowed continued sales of pickups and SUVs in considerable numbers in the past – and real average mpg has continued to increase.
The CAFÉ standard for 2011 to 2016 peaks at 35.5 mpg, and plenty of cars already do better than that, at least on paper.
But there's a limit, given current technology. Yes, you can buy a Chevy Volt to tool around town in and not spend $5 on gas in a month—but if you have to make a trip to grandma's in Omaha, you're going to be putting gas in it all the way. For those of us who live in rural areas, electric cars in their present form are no where near being practical, and electric trucks are non-existent.
And the same is true for those who need to pull trailers, carry heavy loads, or run through rough terrain where four-wheel-drive is a must. In other words, anglers, boaters and hunters – to say nothing of the millions of larger families that have a very hard time fitting four kiddy car seats plus Mom and Dad into a compact sedan.
There's a cost issue; manufacturers estimate that getting to an average 54.5 mpg will add around $3000 to the cost of each vehicle, and that will be passed on to the consumer. However, as transportation secretary Ray LaHood and others have pointed out, that cost would be more than counter-balanced over a five-year ownership period by fuel savings with gas at around $4 a gallon, or even $3 a gallon, given the typical 13,500-miles-per-year U.S. driver.
There's a built-in adjustment period to the new CAFÉ standards in 2021; if it appears then that too many companies are having issues building and selling the cars required by the steadily increasing standards, which will be about 41 mpg at that time, changes can be made then.
It's not to be forgotten that the auto industry went on some economy kicks in the past, then had to retrench when the buying public would not buy the smaller cars required for higher mpg. But that sort of reluctance seems unlikely now with a far stronger environmental ethic in the U.S. and global warming concerns, as well as considerably higher gasoline prices.
There's a lot of good to increasing the fuel economy standards; reduced emissions and a cut in the U.S. contribution to whatever part of global warming is man made certainly among them. Paying less for fuel won't make anybody unhappy, and neither will reducing reliance on the volatile Middle East for a large portion of our oil.
But it's easy for a well-meaning but short-sighted government to regulate an industry out of business. If tow vehicles go, most of boating will go. And, unfortunately, it's no secret that an increasing number of those with their fingers on the trigger of this stuff would be just fine with shutting down all internal combustion tomorrow, consequences and practicality be darned.
Usually overlooked in all this is that China, India and other developing nations have minimal energy conservation rules or pollution limits. We live on a planet, not on an island, and what comes out of the smokestacks in China affects the air breathed in Los Angeles.
It's not a black-and-white issue, to be sure. But boaters, anglers and outdoorsmen would do well to keep an eye on the new regulations and how they affect tow vehicle production in the next decade.