In NASCAR it's called "gettin' competitive." In research and development groups, it's termed "innovation" or "disruptive technology." In sports they say, "That's the way the game is played," until the official calls a penalty. The self-righteous call it "cheating," unless they're doing it themselves. To meet the new 35.5-miles per gallon Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard, engineers at car companies must do something similar-come up with technological breakthroughs and push the gray areas of the regulations, perhaps to the breaking point. As in racing, sports and politics, it's not cheating unless you get caught.
The Energy Independence and Security Act, passed in 2007 as part of the Democrats' 100-Hour Plan, and supercharged by President Obama's 2009 executive order, raises CAFE standards from 27.5 mpg to 35.5 mpg by 2016.
Both engineers and lawyers are studying the proposed details of the new regulations and testing procedures. (This would be a good time to be an engineer with a law degree.) I'm neither an engineer nor an attorney, but I was a rulebook-reading racer. I read the regulations the way W.C. Fields, a comedian from the 1920s and 1930s, is said to have read the Bible: To look for loopholes. By carefully reading the regulations, I helped our team score a victory in a 24-hour race. A disappointing third-overall finish became a praiseworthy class win by entering our two cars in different classes. With another so-called showroom stock car, we discovered that 1) the front-drive car went 1.5 seconds per lap faster with the front anti-roll (aka sway) bar disconnected and 2) the tech inspectors never made us fix its "broken" link. ("Those damn links break every race!")
I set out to perform a similar analysis of the 2016 CAFE regulations. However, the rules weren't even in loose-leaf-binder form. So I poured over "requests for input," proposals, older regulations and other eye-glazing, mind-numbing bureaucratese. My staff-engineering student (aka my son) couldn't explain the formula to determine CAFE, which is chock full of "N sub-1 or -2", sigma signs, and something called the "harmonic mean." (Strangely, harmonic mean has nothing to do with Bob Dylan's early work.)
Also, I discovered that the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fuel-mileage numbers found on car window stickers and quoted in new-car reviews may or may not be what's used to calculate CAFE. A long phone conversation with a representative from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the group that sets CAFE standards, only muddied my understanding: If the government wants to keep something secret, it should try to explain it.
I found that manufacturers get credits for equipping their cars with air conditioners, making them capable of using multiple fuels and, likely, being built in the states of senators with the most seniority. If car factories or parts suppliers suddenly locate to West Virginia, Massachusetts, Vermont, Hawaii or Montana, be suspicious. And if they move from West Virginia, Massachusetts or Hawaii, it means Senators Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy and Dan Inouye have left the Senate.
All this gave me a dyscalculia attack. So I took a nap.
Here are a few ideas that materialized in my dreams. Maybe they're cheating, maybe they're not: It all depends on what the definition of "is" is. (Note to automakers: I'll accept a reasonable royalty of $1 per vehicle if you choose to employ any of these ideas. Note to politicians: I didn't vote for any of you. And if any of you sons-a-guns agree with me, I will reassess my position.)
The Dinghy Package.
Americans love big, powerful vehicles, especially full-size pickup trucks and SUVs. It's going to be a challenge wresting big pickups from their cold, dead fingers, especially since many are accessorized with firearms. Improvements in pickup mileage are unlikely: Ford threw every trick in the book-low rolling resistance (aka low-grip) tires, aerodynamic add-ons and, probably, synthetic engine and gear oil-at the F150 SFE Special Fuel Economy edition. It produced one, count it, one additional highway mpg. (The car companies perform the tests and the EPA rechecks about 10 percent to make sure they're not cheating too flagrantly. NHTSA uses information from the EPA test and, apparently, a set of tarot cards to set CAFE.)
My solution for full-size pickups is the Dinghy Package. This would be especially great for the new Fiat-owned Chrysler. Hooked by tow bar to (or riding in the bed of) every Dodge Ram will be a Fiat 500. Today you can't buy a Ram without, say, an engine. Tomorrow you can't buy one without a Fiat 500. The Ram will get maybe 20 mpg on the EPA's "combined" cycle; the micro-mini Fiat will produce almost 50 mpg combined. (The Feds couldn't tell me whether the highway or the combined or even another number is used for CAFE purposes.)
High (or Hai) iQ.
It's going to be almost as hard to get Americans out of big, powerful automobiles. So this solution borrows from the seat-leather-matching luggage included with many luxury cars. Every Lexus LS buyer would receive (aka "have to take") a version of the Scion iQ, a 60-plus mpg city car. The iQ could be re-badged as the Lexus Mensa.
No serious performance car, from Ferrari to Viper, can come close to 35 mpg, so I propose a new-age hybrid. Plugged into the rear of, say, a Corvette ZR1 will be a wheeled auxiliary power unit (APU), maybe a diesel/electric hybrid. It would push the Vette under normal conditions and be removed "for off-highway or emergency use." The APU might take the ZR1 from an EPA combined 16 mpg to more than 40 mpg. The APU could be disconnected when the owner has an emergency need for speed. Or used to power his house during an electrical blackout.
Bigger is Better.
While the Dinghy Package may help with the overall CAFE numbers, there's still a problem: Every company's light truck fleet must average 30 mpg. My solution: Make them bigger and heavier. For CAFE, light trucks include pickups, SUVs and vans with a Gross Vehicular Weight Rating (GVWR) of less than 10,000. GVWR is the maximum weight the vehicle can carry, including the vehicle itself. So, if a vehicle's GVWR is over 10,000 pounds, it doesn't count against the average. Build 'em big, boys, them Feds is a comin'.
That this would work contrary to reducing America's petroleum consumption is beside the point. Visit the District of Columbia and its surrounding suburbs: It's totally unlike the rest of America. Like the Olympics, we should move the Capitol to a different city every four years. We could do worse than having Congress uprooted to Des Moines, Nashville or Colorado Springs. Not that those cities would want them.
To Infinity and Beyond.
Reality shot down a portion of my dream. The idea was to develop a hybrid that could run the entire test cycle (10 miles for city mileage, 11 miles for highway rating) without the gas-engine starting. Mileage = Infinity. My staff engineer couldn't answer "infinity mpg plus 25 mpg divided by two." However, the rules say hybrids have to finish the test with the same electric charge as they started, so that fantasy disappeared like a clay pigeon hit by a 20mm cannon round. Still, there's potential here.
Extend the Wheelbase and Widen the Track.
In what may be a loophole, the Feds are proposing giving credit according to the vehicle's "footprint." They define this as the wheelbase (the distance between front and rear axles) multiplied by the track (the distance between the centers of the right and left wheels). As weird as it seems, manufacturers of larger vehicles would get a break on their CAFE requirements. Do you think any of the bureaucrats writing these rules have built so much as a winning pinewood derby car? A vehicle with little structure ahead of the front tires and behind the rears would get a big break. Picture a vehicle with a side view of a Volkswagen Microbus and the front view of a Freightliner.
The good news for President Obama is that he'll be nearing the end of his second term before the American public figures out that his 2009 proclamation doomed them to tiny, slow cars, something that will surpass seatbelt interlocks and the 55-mph speed limit in wide disdain. Nobody will even remember who was in the 110th Congress, especially if we move it to El Paso or Bakersfield for the summer and Pierre or Duluth for the winter.