Will Minivans Become an Endangered Species?

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

A casual glance at the nation's highways shows that much has changed in the last 25 years, including fewer large family cars on the road, a dramatic increase in the number of light trucks and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and the introduction of minivans.

By contrast, station wagons, which were large, powerful and able to carry seven people and haul a boat, have almost disappeared. If federal regulators have their way, minivans and SUVs will go the way of the station wagon. In the process, American lives, especially those of children, will be put at risk and gas will be wasted.

The near extinction of station wagons and corresponding ascendance of minivans can be traced to the same source: the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard. CAFE, enacted during the 1975 "energy crisis," required auto manufacturers to meet certain mileage standards in order to reduce America's reliance on foreign oil. Judged by this criterion, CAFE failed. Imported oil usage has risen from 35 percent in 1974 to more than 50 percent in 1995.

Manufacturers pointed out at the time that the proposed standards would require transforming the nation's auto fleet from large cars with powerful engines to cars smaller in size and engine power. Compact cars would be more efficient when measured by the number of miles per gallon (mpg) of gas they consumed, but they also would be less safe.

Under CAFE, an automaker's product line's efficiency is based on the average number of miles each of its cars can travel on a gallon of gas. After CAFE, the presence of gas guzzlers in a product lineup could sink the maker's overall fuel economy number. This is why, over time, they built far fewer large, rear-wheel-drive cars with V-8 engines.

However, there was a loophole, CAFE treated pickup trucks and vans differently. In the 1970s, trucks and vans were concentrated in rural areas and made up only a small fraction of the vehicles in the United States. They were listed in the category "light trucks" and given lower fuel economy standards to meet. Now SUVs and minivans have moved off the farms and into the cities - accounting for more than 40 percent of new car purchases and growing.

Now advocates of CAFE want to raise the passenger car CAFE standard to 40 mpg or higher and eliminate the lower standards for minivans and SUVs. If they get their way, more people will drive more dangerous and less fuel efficient vehicles - defeating the very purpose of CAFE standards.

The most efficient way to improve fuel economy is to reduce the size and power of vehicles. Unfortunately, this has tragic consequences. For example, researchers at Harvard University and the Brookings Institution found that the weight shaved off new cars to meet CAFE standards caused an additional of 2,200 to 3,900 highway deaths a year. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data indicate that 322 additional deaths per year occur as a direct result of shaving just 100 pounds from cars, with half the deaths attributed to small car collision with light trucks/sport utility vehicles.

Since small cars are usually the losers in collisions with SUVs and minivans, the consumer-oriented Center for Auto Safety argues that it's unfair to put them on the same roads and wants to force manufacturers to make minivans and SUVs lighter and smaller.

Unfortunately, requiring all vehicles to be smaller would increase people's overall risk of death or injury in accidents. Worse, since the overwhelming majority of minivan and SUV owners are families - soccer moms, not young singles, use minivans - many of the additional casualties would be children.

Ironically, new CAFE standards may actually decrease vehicle-use efficiency. While almost all subcompact cars may meet or exceed the current CAFE standard of 27.5 mpg, these cars are able to seat only four adults, and only two adults comfortably. By contrast, most full-sized cars can seat five adults comfortably, minivans and most SUVs can seat eight adults and haul a trailer or boat - which no subcompact can do safely.

While EPA ratings suggest that minivans and SUVs may get fewer mpgs, they actually do better than compacts based on passenger/fuel coefficient (PFC) - the number of riders per mile per gallon. For instance, if 32 churchgoers were traveling 100 miles in vehicles filled to capacity to visit a sister congregation, they could make the trip using 8 subcompacts and 25 gallons of gas or 4 minivans using 22.22 gallons of gas - clearly using minivans would be more efficient.

Families, especially those with children, want large, safe vehicles for transporting their children. According to demographic data from Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, minivans are typically found in households of 3.5 or more people. SUVs are found in households of 3 or more people. Subcompacts are typically purchased by singles with no children - households of less than two people on average.

Due to safety concerns, Congress has frozen CAFE standards since 1985. The efficiency gains already achieved should encourage lawmakers to stay the course. Congress should encourage people's right to choose the vehicle that meets their needs. This will produce a mix of vehicles that are both safer and more efficient.