Donald Trump is Wrong About Fuel Economy and Safety

Image: Evan El-Amin/

President Donald Trump has consistently defended his administration’s attempts to roll back Obama-era fuel-economy standards by complaining that building cars with better fuel economy in mind makes them less safe and more expensive.

He brought it up again during the presidential debate last night.

This is, to be quite frank, bullshit.

Now, before we get into this, let me reassure you this isn’t just some political rant because I don’t like Trump or am on the other side of the aisle. Those things are true, but this isn’t about my politics. It’s about calling out the leader of the country for continually displaying ignorance about this subject when it’s discussed, and since it’s about automotive regulations, it’s within our purview.

I’d call out Trump for this regardless of what party he’s in or what side of the aisle he’s on, and if Biden said something similar I’d be equally as harsh on him. Harsher, maybe, since he’s a car guy, and would presumably know better. Biden, for his part, didn’t say much about automotive when the climate question turned his way. Unless I missed it, his only reference to cars was a vague plan to turn the federal fleet to EVs.

I don’t know if Trump was lying or just doesn’t understand basics about cars. Even if I give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter, it’s frustrating. I don’t expect politicians to be experts in every field, and certainly not experts in automotive, but if you’re making an argument for rolling back fuel-economy standards, you should at least have aides brief you on cogent, coherent arguments for doing so. Not blather about how making cars more fuel-efficient makes them less safe. Or how computers meant for fuel-saving makes cars more expensive.

As you likely know if you read this site, the first assertion isn’t true and the second one is a partial truth that’s far more complex than how the president presented it during the debate.

There are good-faith, intellectually honest arguments to make in favor of rolling back fuel-economy standards. Arguments that even proponents of stricter fuel-economy regs would acknowledge as fair, even if they disagree. Trump’s rhetoric isn’t one of those arguments.

Instead, it seems as if he’s seeing things through an extremely basic logic – “big car safer than small, small car better for fuel economy, therefore, fuel-efficient cars are less safe.”

Which is, again, not true.

Modern cars may be smaller than the land barges of old, but they are much safer thanks to advances in technology. Things like unibody construction and crumple zones in terms of structural design, and things like anti-lock brakes and airbags in terms of active and passive safety. Not to mention the recent deluge of driver’s-aid tech that helps drivers avoid collisions in the first place (forward-collision warning, automatic braking, blind-spot monitoring, et cetera). Most driver-aid tech isn’t mandated by the government, but it is available to consumers as an option.

If you don’t believe me, or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, just watch a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu obliterate a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air in a crash-test video. Then think about how car safety has advanced in the time since that video was shot.

Trump is right about a few things, to be fair. A lot of Americans are driving around in older cars, and new cars have gotten expensive (in part due to government regulation, though much of that regulation is about safety, not fuel economy), and there are a lot of computers in use on modern cars. But he oversimplifies the picture.

When he says “the car has gotten so expensive because they have computers all over the place for an extra little bit of gasoline” that is a partial truth, at best. Yes, some of the job of the onboard computers is to maximize fuel economy, as well as manage pollution controls. Yes, modern cars have a lot of onboard computers.

That said – the onboard computers (I assume he’s talking about ECUs, CANBUS, and OBD-II here) exist for more than just fuel-economy reasons. They exist for reasons of performance, safety, convenience, and to assist with repair diagnostics. While the heavy use of computers in modern cars may frustrate the shade-tree mechanic, they help our vehicles perform better and avoid accidents, all while also allowing us to access certain convenience features.

And computers on cars aren’t the only reason, or the main reason, why vehicles have gotten so expensive. Nor are government regulations, regardless of whether those regulations are about fuel-economy or safety.

Aside from the cost of safety regulation, cars are expensive now in part because consumers are increasingly demanding more and more non-mandated safety and convenience features, and the automakers are charging a lot for them, and consumers are showing a willingness to pay the asking price. There’s also the fact that financing arms are originating loans that last longer than ever before, which allows Joe Paycheck to stretch into a car he probably can’t afford otherwise. That creative financing allows automakers to charge a bit more.

Of course, another reason the vehicle fleet is so old is that cars built 10-15 years ago are lasting longer than cars built decades ago.

Trump should also be told that while modern cars are smaller, they aren’t necessarily lighter. In part thanks to the addition of safety features, as well as the convenience features consumers demand. In fact, since weight is an enemy of fuel economy and performance, product planners are constantly working to balance things out.

While making a car more fuel-efficient does NOT make it less safe, making it safer can negatively impact fuel economy. Improving safety while not negatively impacting fuel economy does add cost, so that’s part of why modern cars are costly. To be fair to Trump, maybe that’s what he’s thinking of when he complains that improving fuel economy makes cars more expensive.

There’s a constant dance between making a car as lightweight as possible while also providing the safety features that are required by the government (airbags, for example), the safety features that consumers want (forward-collision warning, et cetera), and the convenience features buyers desire (heated seats, dual-zone climate control, and so on – all of which add weight).

This undercuts Trump’s argument that higher fuel-economy standards make cars less safe. Since government regulations and consumer demand require automakers to ladle safety features into vehicles of all shapes and sizes, weight is added to these vehicles. Weight that works against fuel economy. So, seemingly, added safety tech would actually hurt fuel economy.

Yet automakers, thanks in part to those computers and other modern tech, have managed to coax better fuel-economy numbers than ever while also making cars safer than before. Again, at a cost, as noted above. Automakers have shown that it’s possible to achieve higher mpg numbers without sacrificing performance or safety – but it does cost more.

So, again, that could be why Trump makes this odd assertion about fuel-economy, safety, and cost. He sees that automakers have to incur more cost to keep fuel economy high as safety features are added on, and that the cost gets passed to the consumer, so in his jumbled-up mind, he thinks that cars cost more only because of standards that require higher fuel economy. He may also be simply getting his regulations mixed up – safety regulations almost certainly drive the cost up more than fuel-economy standards.

We should also note here that pollution controls that are regulated by the government (and add cost) are separate from fuel-economy standards. It’s true the pollution controls have, at times, affected performance, and devices that control tailpipe emissions do add weight, but arguing over fleet-average MPGs is separate from discussing, say, how well catalytic converters filter out harmful particulates.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that Obama’s standards allowed manufacturers some flexibility while also accounting for the fact that real-world fuel-economy is lower than in the lab. Automakers have been able to offset the sale of cars with poor fuel economy by selling other cars that achieve good numbers. This matters because Trump doesn’t seem to understand that as things stand currently, automakers can still sell cars that don’t get great fuel economy. Automakers aren’t being required to spend money to make every vehicle fuel-efficient, but rather, to shoot for an average goal across the fleet.

When it comes to fuel economy and cost, Trump doesn’t seem see that there are other factors driving up the cost of cars. Meanwhile, he also seems to think that bigger cars are safer than smaller, more fuel-efficient cars simply because of size.

It’s an odd way to look at it, to say the least.

Moderator Adam pointed out that Trump did almost make a good point – perhaps if newer cars, which are much more fuel-efficient than vehicles from even 10 years ago, were cheaper, more people would buy them and we’d have a more fuel-efficient fleet. But Trump seemingly missed on that.

To his credit, Trump claimed to be in favor of electric cars, though last night is the first time I can recall him saying that off the top of my head. He also mentioned that he’s giving big incentives for electric cars. I don’t know if that’s true – but there is still a federal credit for EVs that predates Trump. It appears he was taking credit for an Obama initiative. In fact, the Trump administration tried to nix the credit.

Also, Trump’s attempts to rollback fuel-economy standards would likely lessen any incentive for OEMs to continue to work on shifting the market to EVs.

Trump finished by mocking California’s attempt to phase out the sale of new cars that are gas-powered by 2035. We’ve raised questions about that, too, but we’d like to think our questions are rooted in reality.

Even if Trump was correct that rolling back fuel-economy standards would make cars cheaper – again, that almost certainly would NOT be the case, due to other factors driving up the cost of vehicles – there’s this, from The Hill: “However, the cost-benefit analysis for the administration’s fuel economy standards found that consumers would ultimately pay $13 billion more in the next decade, in part due to spending more on gas because of lower fuel economy standards.”

Trump is not only ignoring that lower fuel-economy standards could mean consumers would be buying gas more often, he seems to ignore that consumers would want better mpgs to avoid getting gas more often. Even in the cheap gas, gas-guzzling car era of the not-too-distant past, most car owners would’ve preferred to get gas less often. Even when gas was $1 a gallon, fewer fill-ups still saved money.

The purpose of this post isn’t to debate whether the Obama-era standards are too strict or not. But if you’re going to claim that they are, you need a better argument than our president has been using for a while now.

It’s one thing to argue about how strict fuel-economy standards should or shouldn’t be. But to have that discussion, you need a good argument, whichever side you’re on.

Trump doesn’t.

[Image: Evan El-Amin/]

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