Gas prices right at $4 a gallon is actually just what we need
By Warren Brown
LOS ANGELES â€” Politicians and pundits would be wise to forgo celebration of recent declines in crude oil prices. They would be wiser still to support federal legislation that would keep pump prices at a minimum of $4 a gallon for regular unleaded gasoline.
Clearly, I am not running for office. And, yes, for all of you who have asked, I and my associate, Ria Manglapus, pay for our own gasoline. Our combined tab to run last weekâ€™s vehicles â€” a Ford Flex wagon, Pontiac G8 mid-size sedan, and a small Scion xD hatchback â€” was $210.73.
We understand pain at the pump. Weâ€™re feeling it!
Still, this column favors high gasoline prices. Pricey gasoline is bringing a discipline to the marketplace that is long overdue. It is doing what the politicians and all of their phony Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations have failed to do. It is forcing consumers, finally, to share a reasonable part of the burden for conserving fuel and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.
The early evidence, culled by the Transportation and Energy departments and researched and reported in trade journals such as Automotive News, is that consumers are driving more wisely, which means they have reduced their speeds in many cases and have cut out unnecessary driving altogether in others.
Americans have driven 10 billion fewer miles this year than in 2007. Thatâ€™s less oil-based fuel burned, less tailpipe pollution spewed.
Consumers are beginning to make wiser vehicle choices. Sales of big trucks were down 32.3 percent in the second quarter of this year, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Sales of cars and trucks with more fuel-econom-
ical four-cylinder engines are soaring. (Is it any wonder that Honda, the longtime master of zippy, small engines, is the only car company reporting sales increases in the currently depressed U.S. automotive market?)
All major car companies are redoubling their efforts to roll out more fuel-efficient vehicles. Every engineering department at every manufacturer is re-examining materials, trying to decipher what can be done to reduce vehicle weight without compromising safety or performance, trying to figure out how to reduce the rolling resistance of tires without unduly increasing the braking distances of the cars and trucks they carry.
There is now in the global automotive industry an excitement about fuel economy that rivals the emotion of the industryâ€™s legendary horsepower wars.
That is a very good thing. And it is happening because of what is happening in the worldâ€™s most lucrative automotive market â€” the United States of America.
Our market is in many ways becoming like those of Europe and Asia because we at long last are beginning to face the realities of fuel availability and costs that have affected consumer and corporate behavior in other developed countries.
Please note: I put consumer behavior ahead of corporate behavior because it is my belief that corporate behavior follows consumer behavior and demand. Iâ€™ve never accepted the notion that advertising controls the mind of the mass market. If that were true, cars such as the Yugo and Ford Edsel, and abominations such as the Pontiac Aztek crossover, would have been resounding successes.
Heck, if advertising ruled the consumer world, the once expensively marketed Toyota Tundra pickup truck would be selling like gasoline priced at $2 a gallon.
But Tundra sales have tanked. For the next three months, Toyota will shut down production of Tundra models at plants in Indiana and Texas to try to bring inventory in line with greatly depleted demand.
Meanwhile, Toyota and its rivals domestic and foreign are working overtime to strengthen their inventories of attractive, fun-to-drive small cars.
All of those changes have come about â€” and are continuing to come â€” because of gasoline priced near or above $4 a gallon.
And that is why â€” to be blunt about it to the point of rudeness â€” the politicians and pundits whining about high gasoline prices ought to shut up.
We finally are moving toward the more fuel-efficient, less oil-dependent America we say we want â€” the one the politicians, pandering for votes, tried to get without any consumer sacrifice.
High fuel prices are doing the job the politicians refused to do. If they really want to help America in that endeavor, they should do something that is completely counterintuitive, given the national angst over prices at the pump. They should put forth legislation to keep those prices at least at $4 a gallon via taxes or fees.
That ultimately would do more to wean us from oil than Republican demands for increased offshore drilling, or Democratsâ€™ insistence on federally mandated increases in fuel economy for a market that will accept the end products only if the price at the pump is right.