11/20/2012 06:47 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

What the Government Doesn't Get About Fuel Economy

The Obama administration recently moved to raise automaker's Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements to 54.5 mpg by the year 2025. Using fewer natural resources is great, but at the same time, the federal government is also set to mandate more standard safety features for all passenger cars. Each of those required features adds weight to the average car and that works against fuel economy. They can't have it both ways.

Decades ago, the fairly simple Honda Civic CRX HF got an estimated 57 mpg on the highway. True, it lacked airbags, traction control and a rear parking camera, but just imagine how a simple car like that could do today. Even if you use today's tougher EPA testing standards, the CRX HF still does better than most hybrids, largely because it was lightweight and used a small engine.

But the federal government is making it hard for automakers to produce lightweight cars like the CRX by mandating a long list of standard features. For example, headlights, taillights, back-up lights, seatbelts, airbags and tempered glass are just a few of the things every new car must have before it can be sold in the U.S. Certainly, some safety standards are necessary and most of these seem reasonable.

More recently, on-board tire pressure monitoring systems have been mandated for all new cars. Soon stability control, lane departure warning, front end collision warning and rear parking cameras may be required on all new cars. Again, each of these items adds weight to the car. For just a rear parking camera feature to be added, the system requires a small camera, a monitor so you can see what the camera sees, cable to transmit the image from the camera to the monitor and a switch to turn the system on and off (usually when the car is put into reverse). All of these little things add weight, which works against fuel economy. Besides, many affordable and popular cars like the Toyota Highlander, Mazda CX-5 and Honda Accord offer some these features as options, and most people choose to pay extra for them. In light of this, is there really a need for the government to mandate such features?

To their credit, automobile manufacturers have recaptured some of the lost fuel economy through the use of lightweight materials. Today, various plastics make up about 50 percent of a car's total volume but make up only 10 percent of its weight.

However, in order to deliver lightweight materials with enough strength to withstand an accident, materials like aluminum, carbon fiber and various composites have to be used. But those lightweight materials and the processes needed to manufacture them are becoming increasingly complex and expensive. For example, Lexus built their own carbon fiber weaving loom just so they could make the LFA supercar as light and strong as possible. It's an extreme example, but that car costs about $400,000.

Vehicle prices that are too high for average families to afford is a big problem. Easy and affordable access to personal transportation (automobiles) is one of the things that makes America great. The rising cost of personal transportation isn't a concern for the wealthy, they can easily afford new, complex and expensive technologies like electric cars and hybrids. It seems easy to simply suggest that everyone else use public transportation, but I'd bet the average suburban wage earner would rather be punched in the gut repeatedly than be bound by a municipal bus or train schedule. The Competitive Enterprise Institute's "Automobility and Freedom Project" put it more succinctly: "We are in danger of forgetting that there is a basic moral dimension to mobility, to being able to go where we want, when we want."

Even if it is in the name of lowering fuel consumption, forcing private industry to price their products beyond the reach of most people is irresponsible and meddling. If they can't afford a family car, many working class families will feel like the American dream is all but unobtainable. Like most federal government mandated fixes, raising the CAFE standards seems short sighted in light of increasingly stringent safety requirements. They just can't have it both ways.