CAFE killed the Big Three

Can the Big Three survive a bailout?


... [In 1975] the institution of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy requirements designed to limit our reliance on foreign oil in the wake of the Arab oil embargo.

Instead of simply limiting foreign imports or adding federal taxes to fuel costs to give consumers an incentive to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, the government instituted byzantine regulations that required American manufacturers to build (or at least market) fuel-efficient cars just so they could continue selling the cars and trucks they were already known for.

Since the United States had always been a country of "cheap gas," (a tradition that continues, by the way) American car companies were not geared up to build small, fuel-efficient cars, but foreign manufacturers were. The result was that Americans were almost forcibly exposed to import vehicles, and many American consumers liked what they found.

The CAFÉ regulations accompanied by inexpensive gasoline were analogous to plopping consumers into the middle of a giant candy store and then forcing the candy manufacturers to somehow persuade a percentage of consumers to buy broccoli instead.

When all was said and done, the CAFÉ rules ended up giving a strong leg up to the Big Three's import competitors, putting their market share on an upward curve that hasn't ceased climbing.

Of course, having helped push American consumers into import cars, albeit inadvertently, the federal government then tried to reverse the trend through new intervention.

At the urging of the U.S. government, the Japanese manufacturers adopted "voluntary" restraints on their exports of vehicles to the U.S. beginning in 1981. The goal was to give U.S. companies "breathing room" so they could catch up to the Japanese in producing small, fuel-efficient vehicles. (Sound familiar?)

Again, this might have seemed a worthy plan at the time, but it had several unintended consequences that ended up doing much more harm to the domestic manufacturers than good. In the short term it limited supply of popular Japanese-built vehicles, which resulted in windfall profits for the dealers of the top imports, helping those brands establish very strong dealer networks.

It influenced the import manufacturers to move up-market both by building more expensive vehicles and by establishing luxury brands like Acura, Lexus and Infiniti. And it gave strong impetus for the import manufacturers to build plants here in the United States.

Today a large percentage of the "import brand" share of the U.S. market -- more than 50 percent of the total light-vehicles sold here -- are vehicles built by Americans in foreign-managed factories on U.S. soil. Ironically, to counteract this, the Big Three automakers have increasingly moved production from the U.S. to lower-labor-cost countries like Mexico.

So what are the implications of this history lesson? The first takeaway is that a portion of the woes the domestic Big Three are suffering today are the result of current and past federal government policies, so it seems fair that they be accorded government assistance now in time of dire need.

But equally important, while the Big Three automakers might well be accused of not correctly gauging the needs and desires of the American buying public, one group that is demonstrably much worse in that endeavor is Congress. If the U.S. government were a car company, it would not only be deep in the red, but also have miserable customer satisfaction scores.

Comment: See SUVs and minivans created due to original mandate

CAFE standards signaled the end of the traditional long station wagon, but Chrysler's Lee Iacocca developed the idea of the minivan, which would fit into the separate truck category and allow automakers to comply with emissions standards. Eventually, this same idea led to the development of the SUV

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