WASHINGTON - American Honda Motor Co. keeps shipping some Accord sedans from Japan to the United States, even though it could probably build enough of the cars here to meet demand.
Honda ships Accords from Japan, costing the United States jobs, so the car can be classified as an import under U.S. fuel-economy rules.
In fact, not long ago, ships carrying Honda Accords passed one another on the Pacific Ocean. U.S.-built cars were bound for Japan, and Japan-built cars were headed for the United States, in part because of the fuel rules, the company acknowledged. Honda has since stopped the exports to Japan.
Industry officials last week cited the game of musical Accords as just one example of how corporate average fuel economy rules, known as CAFE, sometimes cause automakers to do things that don't make business sense - and don't really save energy.
CAFE is in play
The distorting influence of CAFE on automakers' decision-making was debated at a March 12 meeting of the National Academy of Sciences' panel of experts. The panel is studying and recommending changes to the energy conservation program.
Although such academic studies frequently go nowhere, this panel has a chance to have real influence at a pivotal point in the 25-year-history of CAFE: The Bush administration says sound energy policy is a top priority. Environmental groups see CAFE as a global warming remedy. And automakers have dropped their demand that standards stay frozen at 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 for light trucks.
Faced with a July 1 deadline, the panel is hearing there are flaws in almost every aspect of CAFE. Last week, Honda and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers called for an end to the two-fleet provision. It requires that fuel economy figures be calculated separately for each manufacturer's domestically made cars and for its imported cars.
'The current requirement perversely discourages increased U.S. content and employment,' said Tim MacCarthy, AIAM president. Honda is an AIAM member.
Last year, by selling about 87,000 Japan-built Accords, to go with the 317,000 built in Ohio, Honda was able to keep the average domestic content of the whole model line below the cutoff point of 75 percent, Honda spokesman Art Garner said.
That means the Accord remains classified an import model line and helps Honda keep the average fuel economy of its imported fleet comfortably above the 27.5 mpg standard. Without the more efficient Accord, the imported fleet would consist entirely of the more performance-oriented Acuras and the Honda Prelude.
'We would skate by (the standard), but not by much,' said John German, environment and energy manager for Honda.
While Honda's motivation for importing Accords was a revelation, the gaming of the CAFE system by automakers is not new.
In the early 1990s, Ford Motor Co. intentionally reduced domestic content of the Crown Victoria and Grand Marquis because of CAFE.
Several companies get CAFE credit for building flexible-fuel vehicles, even though most will burn only gasoline.
And DaimlerChrysler made sure the PT Cruiser's seats come out for cargo hauling so it would be classified as a truck for CAFE.