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AutoBlog: WSJ Column: Higher gas taxes better strategy than CAFE to save GM

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2009 Chevrolet Cruze - Click above for high-res image gallery

Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford and AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson were just two voices that spoke out in favor of a higher gas tax earlier this year. While we took the Cato Institute's Alan Reynolds to task for muddying the waters of the "Toyota-licensed hybrid Fusion", there's reason to look deeper at his argument (published in The Wall Street Journal) which maintains that a higher gas tax isn't just a good way to encourage sensible car purchases, it also stands to be helpful in saving troubled domestic automakers like General Motors. Reynolds writes:

The federal fuel tax is highest on the most efficient fuel (diesel) and below zero on the least efficient fuel (ethanol). Cars get about 30% better mileage on diesel than on gasoline, and cars running mainly on gasoline get about 30% better mileage than they would using 85% ethanol.

To stop distorting consumer choices, simply apply the same 24-cent-a-gallon federal tax to gasoline and ethanol as we do to diesel. This would add funds to the depleted federal highway trust. More importantly, it would remove an irrational tax penalty on buying diesel-powered cars -- arguably the most cost-effective way to improve mileage without reducing car size or performance.

Since GM, already on the government dole, sells (proportionally) so many large vehicles, it will need to sell more smaller or diesel-powered vehicles to offset its truck fleet and to meet upcoming CAFE standards. Reynolds doesn't think CAFE is a good idea, and claims there's a better way to make sure GM survives. Reynolds says that a higher gas tax would allow the Detroit automaker to keep building the cars it builds best ("midsize and large sedans, sports cars, pickup trucks and SUVs"). Only by upping the gas tax and totally scrapping CAFE, Reynolds says, will GM not be forced to take even more money to survive - and to pay the CAFE fines it's sure to acquire. Doing so would also allow The General to not waste "more taxpayer money on 'retooling' to produce unwanted and unprofitable subcompacts and electric cars."

[source: Wall Street Journal]

WSJ Column: Higher gas taxes better strategy than CAFE to save GM originally appeared on Autoblog on Mon, 06 Jul 2009 18:30:00 EST. Please see our terms for use of feeds.

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Obviously. CAFE is a ridiculous policy and introduces many inefficiencies into the marketplace, but no politician will support a higher gas tax. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

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CAFE is a dumb system, it doesn't even measure actual mileage. They should get rid of CAFE all together and just raise gas taxes to 30-40 cents a gallon on all fuels. If gas is expensive, consumers will buy more fuel efficient cars. And for those that don't care about gas prices, and want a 500 hp guzzler, then they have that choice and can pay the tax. Evening out the taxes on diesel and ethanol is a good idea, we should have more diesels here, it is efficient, reliable and torquey.

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CAFE is a dumb system, it doesn't even measure actual mileage. They should get rid of CAFE all together and just raise gas taxes to 30-40 cents a gallon on all fuels. If gas is expensive, consumers will buy more fuel efficient cars. And for those that don't care about gas prices, and want a 500 hp guzzler, then they have that choice and can pay the tax. Evening out the taxes on diesel and ethanol is a good idea, we should have more diesels here, it is efficient, reliable and torquey.

Amen. Let the consumer choose!

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A carbon tax on fuel that redistributes income through lower income taxes would be an optimal system, but I doubt the US Government in its current financial position would opt for a system similar to British Columbia's. Introducing a fuel tax of any kind would be near impossible, which is a shame, because a consumption tax is generally the fairest for all.

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It would be hard to determine and keep record of how many miles each car in the country is traveling, and do they tax weight once on purchase, or use some formula for weight per mile driven. Taxing gas is easier and it gets people to buy fuel efficient cars yet still gives consumers freedom of choice. And in an indirect way it is taxing CO2 emissions because even the lawnmower emits CO2. Higher gas taxes work in Europe, their cars are fuel efficient, yet mostly all the supercars come from Europe also.

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It would be hard to determine and keep record of how many miles each car in the country is traveling, and do they tax weight once on purchase, or use some formula for weight per mile driven. Taxing gas is easier and it gets people to buy fuel efficient cars yet still gives consumers freedom of choice. And in an indirect way it is taxing CO2 emissions because even the lawnmower emits CO2. Higher gas taxes work in Europe, their cars are fuel efficient, yet mostly all the supercars come from Europe also.

Yes...it would be very expensive to track the miles each vehicle is driven. A gas tax is the fairest approach...if you want to drive a gas guzzler, you pay for it...that's it. Life is full of choices. There is no free lunch. A gas tax is just a consumption tax--the more you consume, the more you pay. The less you consume, the less you pay. What could be more fair?

Edited by Cubical-aka-Moltar
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Yes...it would be very expensive to track the miles each vehicle is driven. A gas tax is the fairest approach...if you want to drive a gas guzzler, you pay for it...that's it. Life is full of choices. There is no free lunch. A gas tax is just a consumption tax--the more you consume, the more you pay. The less you consume, the less you pay. What could be more fair?

It won't be. During tag renewal, many states require proof of insurance to be mailed or checked at the tag agency. Checking the miles can be done at the same time too. Just a little bit more hassle for the people in DMV, which is not a big deal since most of them are lazy anyways.

I understand where Joe is coming from. There is more than environment and consumption, there is also usage of roads and facilities that need to be constantly updated because of excessive use of vehicles, and taxing directly the road usage will also help.

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Like it or not, an increase in the gas tax is the ONLY way to get people to use less oil. I'm not talking "30-40 cents," I'm talking a dollar or more but doled out over a stretch of time, say 10 cents a month for a year and a half. That would give consumers some time to buy a more fuel efficient vehicle and local governments time to improve their public transportation systems.

"Who do these mere plebes think they are, being able to afford to drive to work and school?"

They'll still be able to drive to work and school...but not in a 15-mpg SUV or pickup. What's wrong with something like a 40-mpg Jetta TDI? I enjoy my 36-mpg Suzuki Swift GT. And why not get more people commuting by 40-50 mpg motorcycles? It's a far better plan than CAFE.

But, as was pointed out above, no politician expecting to be re-elected next term will introduce such a bill. And you know that there aren't enough politicians on EARTH willing to publicly vote aye on such a bill.

CAFE's the current answer and has been since it was first enacted during the Ford (Gerald, not Henry) Administration. CAFE did some good by pushing manufacturers to improve the economy of their vehicles and the feared negatives (astronomical price tags, small econo-boxes, unsafe cars) didn't happen as we currently have 300hp 29 mpg cars with 5-star crash ratings and price tags that average consumers can afford.

I believe that the technology is still there to make fun-to-drive, affordable, and safe cars that will meet the current CAFE standards for 2015...but I also believe that CAFE has outlived its usefulness. Someone needs to come up with a better plan.

GM (or any manufacturer) could make a killing by introducing "must have" car that seats 5, gets 35 mpg, does 0-60 in under 7 seconds, and passes every crash test with flying colors. Even better, make it fully electric, fully rechargeable in less than 15 minutes, and priced under $30,000 (before government incentives) and dealers won't be able to keep them on the lot.

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Both CAFE and fuel taxes are irrational and are clubs that politicians use because they lack the creativity to find real answers, and the honesty to address a given problem head-on.

Both approaches are an unnecessary circle of artificial reality that avoid genuine solutions. They are wasteful and divert attention while placing blame and attempting to manipulate the public in a misguided social engineering experiment.

CAFE's intention was to reduce the consumption of fuel nationally: it failed.

Gas taxes were intended to fund the maintenance of our highway infrastructure: another failure.

Yet these two "solutions" are held up again and again as viable answers to our troubles.

Stunningly stupid.

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Both CAFE and fuel taxes are irrational and are clubs that politicians use because they lack the creativity to find real answers, and the honesty to address a given problem head-on.

Both approaches are an unnecessary circle of artificial reality that avoid genuine solutions. They are wasteful and divert attention while placing blame and attempting to manipulate the public in a misguided social engineering experiment.

CAFE's intention was to reduce the consumption of fuel nationally: it failed.

Gas taxes were intended to fund the maintenance of our highway infrastructure: another failure.

Yet these two "solutions" are held up again and again as viable answers to our troubles.

Stunningly stupid.

So what is your answer? Do you have a more viable approach than the taxes or regulations?

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I'm with WMJ, as someone who has yet to find full time income, and whose cars egt 25-40 mpg, I'm certainly not driving gas suckers, but it would hurt me and others like me with low income even more in this economy. People seem to fail to realize that most people with less than ideal income don't driver around 3 mpg H1s.

Oh, and as Camino has said, gas tax is a failure....it's just throwing more money at politicians to waste.

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So what is your answer? Do you have a more viable approach than the taxes or regulations?

Of course I do.

- Fuel taxes exist to fund certain public projects (highway maintenance etc.). Therefore, they are an unnecessary financial and bureaucratic detour on the road to funding these essential programs. All such infrastructure funding should be a regular, needs-based part of the general budgets of federal, state, and local governments. Such expenses should never be tied to volatile commodities such as oil, they are an essential service of those governments and should be treated as such. Infrastructure is one area clearly within the sphere of governmental responsibility - it needs to be acknowledged as such in a straightforward way. Hiding it behind such "use taxes", and diverting (or holding it hostage) for political leverage makes the concept nothing short of a hoax.

- As for CAFE, it (like the gas tax) is a punitive approach that ignores the market realities and serves only to anger the very people forced to make its "goals" attainable. An incentive-based approach would be far superior, both for the automakers and for the buying public. CAFE fails on every front, and holds back just the sort of real advances required to cope with our energy issues. It stifles creativity and rewards self-destruction by mandating the production of undesireable and unmarketable vehicles. A more wrong-headed mechanism of law and regulation is hard to imagine.

I think I'll just leave it there on the CAFE front, as I don't have the time to write the novel-length response that it requires. Suffice it to say, CAFE is the ultimate in cowardly and lazy political misconduct.

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Both CAFE and fuel taxes are irrational and are clubs that politicians use because they lack the creativity to find real answers, and the honesty to address a given problem head-on.

Both approaches are an unnecessary circle of artificial reality that avoid genuine solutions. They are wasteful and divert attention while placing blame and attempting to manipulate the public in a misguided social engineering experiment.

CAFE's intention was to reduce the consumption of fuel nationally: it failed.

Gas taxes were intended to fund the maintenance of our highway infrastructure: another failure.

Yet these two "solutions" are held up again and again as viable answers to our troubles.

Stunningly stupid.

This. Camino saves me a lot of typing.

As DF mentions a few replies later, a gas tax, even driving economical cars hits him where it hurts... and he isn't even mentioning where it will REALLY hurt... inflated prices for every product that needs to move and a devastated economy. And all the while, the H1 3mpg set will continue driving, offering the gas tax as a cost of doing business and a write off.

I would only support a gas tax under the strictest conditions... 1) All proceeds go to transportation infrastructure... FIRST to roads and bridges and only after our highways are up to par would it fund other transportation forms. 2) States determine where these funds are best applied. 3) Federal government can no longer blackmail states by withholding funds that are already rightfully theirs.

I'm so sick of hearing about people needing to save a couple MPG... then buying a new car every few years, a process that uses more resources than the car could use in a few centuries. At least fixing the road infrastructure would save some wear and tear on the cars and a few lives.

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gas taxes are backwards is what the guy at CATO is saying.... CATO is very typically libertarian if you don't know..

i don't know for sure, but diesel is easiest to refine (maybe not cause of ULS standards now?) so, even though it would be least energy in, most out, it might "pollute the most", but we still have tech to refine that.

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It would be hard to determine and keep record of how many miles each car in the country is traveling, and do they tax weight once on purchase, or use some formula for weight per mile driven. Taxing gas is easier and it gets people to buy fuel efficient cars yet still gives consumers freedom of choice. And in an indirect way it is taxing CO2 emissions because even the lawnmower emits CO2. Higher gas taxes work in Europe, their cars are fuel efficient, yet mostly all the supercars come from Europe also.

yes, i pretty much agree with the article and what and others have said, and also, i honestly wouldn't mind paying more gas tax IF it goes solely to making better roads etc.

mainly the problem with taxing miles is big brother issues. it opens a slippery slope to monitoring your driving and making laws and other crtieria based upon restricting usage.

WSJ has it right in this case. Why should GM be forced to build Sparks and Vivas no one wants and they can't make money on?

Flip side of this, the incentive should still be there for hybrids, BAS, ecoboost, etc.

The oil companies and the govt mafia behind anything oil don't seem to think we mind 1-2 dollar gas price swings to pad exxon or govt lobbyists, so i don't see how a miniscule 10 cent bump in gas tax will affect me much more than gas going up a dollar since the election.

Myself i would have no problems driving diesel if the diesel car choices were much greater and less expensive. I also wouldn't mind if all cars were E85 capable.

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Of course I do.

- Fuel taxes exist to fund certain public projects (highway maintenance etc.). Therefore, they are an unnecessary financial and bureaucratic detour on the road to funding these essential programs. All such infrastructure funding should be a regular, needs-based part of the general budgets of federal, state, and local governments. Such expenses should never be tied to volatile commodities such as oil, they are an essential service of those governments and should be treated as such. Infrastructure is one area clearly within the sphere of governmental responsibility - it needs to be acknowledged as such in a straightforward way. Hiding it behind such "use taxes", and diverting (or holding it hostage) for political leverage makes the concept nothing short of a hoax.

- As for CAFE, it (like the gas tax) is a punitive approach that ignores the market realities and serves only to anger the very people forced to make its "goals" attainable. An incentive-based approach would be far superior, both for the automakers and for the buying public. CAFE fails on every front, and holds back just the sort of real advances required to cope with our energy issues. It stifles creativity and rewards self-destruction by mandating the production of undesireable and unmarketable vehicles. A more wrong-headed mechanism of law and regulation is hard to imagine.

I think I'll just leave it there on the CAFE front, as I don't have the time to write the novel-length response that it requires. Suffice it to say, CAFE is the ultimate in cowardly and lazy political misconduct.

Respectfully, I disagree with the core of your argument. While CAFE was to decrease our use of oil (which it DID on a per-mile-driven basis), the major benefit of CAFE was to get car companies to produce more modern and efficient vehicles, which it also did. Granted, the increased competition (around the same time) from the Japanese helped spark that technological move, but CAFE started it.

And gas taxes might get routed into public works projects (or the government might SAY it does), the argument used above was for these taxes to simply increase the price of gas and, hopefully, push people into BUYING more fuel efficient vehicles rather than requiring (as CAFE does) manufacturers to make more fuel efficient vehicles, even if the public doesn't want them.

Higher gas taxes would change the public's perception of a car or truck where they would buy something using less gas (or pay the extra to fuel their 3-ton SUV). This would, in turn, make smaller cars more popular and increase the price manufacturers could get for them, taking them from "loss-leaders" required to sell the bigger vehicles the public wants to actual profitable core products that can stand on their own.

Camino: It was asked of you to provide your thoughts on a solution. You made the point about funding public works projects (roads and the like) through general funding, which is fine. But the problem outlined in this thread has nothing to do with that. How do we practically get people to use less oil?

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The oil companies and the govt mafia behind anything oil don't seem to think we mind 1-2 dollar gas price swings to pad exxon or govt lobbyists, so i don't see how a miniscule 10 cent bump in gas tax will affect me much more than gas going up a dollar since the election.

Right, which is why a tax increase of $1-2 would be NEEDED in order change buying habits, just as it did over the past few years when gas was $3-4/gallon. Now with gas back in the $2.50 range, people have forgotten about that. And, again, what politician in his/her right mind will introduce a bill raising gas taxes by the necessary $1-2/gallon?

Myself i would have no problems driving diesel if the diesel car choices were much greater and less expensive. I also wouldn't mind if all cars were E85 capable.

I'm with you. The diesels and E85-fueled cars I have driven were great, but where (outside of the Midwest) can you find E85? Let's say that E85 becomes available across the country, putting pressure on the corn industry to raise prices making E85 more expensive as well as making corn more expensive (and, in turn, raising the cost of nearly every other food on our plates). And using diesel doesn't do much to reduce our need for foreign oil.

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Respectfully, I disagree with the core of your argument. While CAFE was to decrease our use of oil (which it DID on a per-mile-driven basis), the major benefit of CAFE was to get car companies to produce more modern and efficient vehicles, which it also did. Granted, the increased competition (around the same time) from the Japanese helped spark that technological move, but CAFE started it.

And gas taxes might get routed into public works projects (or the government might SAY it does), the argument used above was for these taxes to simply increase the price of gas and, hopefully, push people into BUYING more fuel efficient vehicles rather than requiring (as CAFE does) manufacturers to make more fuel efficient vehicles, even if the public doesn't want them.

Higher gas taxes would change the public's perception of a car or truck where they would buy something using less gas (or pay the extra to fuel their 3-ton SUV). This would, in turn, make smaller cars more popular and increase the price manufacturers could get for them, taking them from "loss-leaders" required to sell the bigger vehicles the public wants to actual profitable core products that can stand on their own.

Camino: It was asked of you to provide your thoughts on a solution. You made the point about funding public works projects (roads and the like) through general funding, which is fine. But the problem outlined in this thread has nothing to do with that. How do we practically get people to use less oil?

Disagreement is fine. However, the truth is that the effects of CAFE implementation were the unforeseen move to SUVs as the new "family car" and an increase in driving per capita. This led to the creation of sprawl and a social structure even more dependent on the private automobile. The result of these changes was increased oil usage (and a giant jump in the importation of foreign oil).

What we need is government incentives to move to a diversified fuel infrastructure and away from oil. Relying on efficiency increases and dubious prospects of social change is a foolish path to follow. It is time to encourage the development of all fuel sources and their attendent infrastructures.

Real, pragmatic alternatives that work right now are what is needed in the short term, and a policy of energy diversity is what is needed long term.

We need to act as if oil has already run out, and employ the solutions at hand.

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Disagreement is fine. However, the truth is that the effects of CAFE implementation were the unforeseen move to SUVs as the new "family car" and an increase in driving per capita. This led to the creation of sprawl and a social structure even more dependent on the private automobile. The result of these changes was increased oil usage (and a giant jump in the importation of foreign oil).

Sprawl and auto dependency far predate CAFE, going back to the Post WWII suburbanisation of the US. The rise of the SUV as a family car has a lot to do with the fact that it was more profitable for automakers to build trucks and truck based SUVs than large cars and wagons, also, the CAFE standards were less (or not applied at all?) for trucks.

In the late '80s and 90s, the traditional family wagon market split into the minivan market (more efficient) and the SUV market (less efficient).

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Sprawl and auto dependency far predate CAFE, going back to the Post WWII suburbanisation of the US. The rise of the SUV as a family car has a lot to do with the fact that it was more profitable for automakers to build trucks and truck based SUVs than large cars and wagons, also, the CAFE standards were less (or not applied at all?) for trucks.

In the late '80s and 90s, the traditional family wagon market split into the minivan market (more efficient) and the SUV market (less efficient).

Yes, suburbanization began in the post WWII era. However, the exponential expansion of sprawl that occurred in the 80's and 90s dwarfs the initial flight from the cities.

SUVs only became profitable because they became popular. They became popular because the traditional family car became less capable. The cars became less capable due to CAFE.

One thing led to the other, it's that simple.

CAFE's history is rife with unintended consequences, and the new standards will be no exception.

This time, in addition to the automakers, those who rely on trucks and other robust vehicles for a living will be victims.

CAFE and fuel taxes are regressive - we need a new methodology to deal with things this time.

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Right, which is why a tax increase of $1-2 would be NEEDED in order change buying habits, just as it did over the past few years when gas was $3-4/gallon. Now with gas back in the $2.50 range, people have forgotten about that. And, again, what politician in his/her right mind will introduce a bill raising gas taxes by the necessary $1-2/gallon?

I'm with you. The diesels and E85-fueled cars I have driven were great, but where (outside of the Midwest) can you find E85? Let's say that E85 becomes available across the country, putting pressure on the corn industry to raise prices making E85 more expensive as well as making corn more expensive (and, in turn, raising the cost of nearly every other food on our plates). And using diesel doesn't do much to reduce our need for foreign oil.

its kind of funny. the town where i live, the office for minn corn growers is and there is like 5 ethanol pumps in 5 miles of my house. and my wifes hometown has an ethanol plant. so to me, ethanol is already quite pervasive.

really though, i blame california and the feds for keeping diesel out. california wants to micromanage the emissions of the country and there was no clean diesel till recently.

we've already asked the carmakers to do way too much with emissions. at this point, lets concentrate on bringing the cost down of diesel tech here in the states and in return get more diesels on the road.

simply offering the automakers 'x' federal dollars to develop and sell diesel cars here would be trememdous. Can you imagine the diesels for sale if the govt enticed the manufacturers with cash to get them in the showrooms?

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Right, which is why a tax increase of $1-2 would be NEEDED in order change buying habits, just as it did over the past few years when gas was $3-4/gallon. Now with gas back in the $2.50 range, people have forgotten about that. And, again, what politician in his/her right mind will introduce a bill raising gas taxes by the necessary $1-2/gallon?

I'm with you. The diesels and E85-fueled cars I have driven were great, but where (outside of the Midwest) can you find E85? Let's say that E85 becomes available across the country, putting pressure on the corn industry to raise prices making E85 more expensive as well as making corn more expensive (and, in turn, raising the cost of nearly every other food on our plates). And using diesel doesn't do much to reduce our need for foreign oil.

really the only afordable diesel in the US is the Jetta, and to be honest i don't really want a VW or the social labels that go with it.

Now, a Malibu diesel or g8 diesel or CTS diesel? An equinox diesel? a diesel traverse? sure.

of course, a stage equinox 2.0 ecotec turbo and 6 speed manual would be fun too.

Hell, why can't i have a diesel cruze with cobalt SS steering and suspension, and a six speed manual? 50 mpg and sport handling. sign me up.

Edited by regfootball
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Sprawl and auto dependency far predate CAFE, going back to the Post WWII suburbanisation of the US. The rise of the SUV as a family car has a lot to do with the fact that it was more profitable for automakers to build trucks and truck based SUVs than large cars and wagons, also, the CAFE standards were less (or not applied at all?) for trucks.

In the late '80s and 90s, the traditional family wagon market split into the minivan market (more efficient) and the SUV market (less efficient).

diesel minivans would be terribly efficient.

a good large 4 cylinder turbodiesel with a CVT or 6 speed auto in a not soooooo huuuugggeeee fwd minivan (last gen grand caravan size) would be fine. and net you 30 mpg consistently i bet.

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CAFE has done nothing but make it so car makers only can make the cars that fit the law and not what eeveryone wants.

With the new CAFE coming it will be small cars or nothing like it or not. With the higher gas tax it will open the door for the consumer and automaker to sell what people are willing to pay for. If your willing to pay more for fuel then GM can sell you a V8 4X4 SUV or V12 Caddy. IF you don't want to pay the big dollar at the pump then you can buy a Volt and even the higher price tag will make it a viable option to your wallet.

Then you factor in the lost tax rev at the pump with CAFE making more efficent cars it leave little other options that are realistic. We would have had higher gas tax long ago if Washington was not affraid of getting re elected. The present elected officals will have a hard time in the next election with the already increase in the taxes so they have nothing to lose.

If there is a better idea that is realistic then speak up but untill then this is the only workable idea there is.

As for deisels they are still a hard sell to the general public. The majority would not buy them even if they were cheaper than gas engines. It will take a joint effort by all automakers to to promote the idea and show the general unknowing population that they are not the same engines as the Olds was nor the city bus. You just can makem and expect an unin formed public to embrace them with the past memories in this country.

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