Higher Fuel Economy Standards Are Within Reach, If Only Traditional Carmakers Would Give In

How do you feel about fuel economy standards? Don’t you wish that the vehicle you like to drive most could achieve higher — and maybe much higher — fuel economy and still provide you with the options you enjoy?

You’re not alone. Better fuel economy standards are something that most Americans want, according to the Consumer Federation of America (CFA). The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are regulations in the U.S. designed to improve the average fuel economy of cars and light trucks (which include trucks, vans, and sport utility vehicles) produced for sale in the U.S.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulates CAFE standards, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) measures vehicle fuel efficiency. Congress specifies that CAFE standards must be set at the “maximum feasible level” given consideration for:

  • technological feasibility;
  • economic practicality;
  • effect of other standards on fuel economy; and,
  • needs of the nation to conserve energy.

In a CFA poll conducted at the end of 2016, people who responded across party lines said that they supported fuel economy regulations. Here’s the breakout of who wants fuel-economy standards:

  • 2/3 of Donald Trump voters;
  • 4/5 of Hillary Clinton voters;
  • 2/3 independent voters (who also tended to favor Republicans).

Then how come, if so many Americans across the political spectrum want higher fuel-economy regulations, we don’t have them?

CFA research director Mark Cooper said, in understated fashion, that automakers are not enthusiastic about CAFE standards. Lack of enthusiasm aside, a fact sheet from the Union of Concerned Scientists describes the effects of fuel-economy standards: they would reduce America’s oil consumption, save consumers money at the gas pump, and protect public health and the environment by curbing global warming pollution. They could also help spur investments in new automotive technology, create jobs, and help sustain the recovery of the American auto industry. No other federal policy has the potential to deliver greater oil savings, consumer benefits, and global warming emissions reductions.

So, even though the Obama administration made history by setting standards that could nearly double the fuel economy of new cars and light trucks by 2025, what’s the likelihood we’ll see them take affect?

Not too great. And that’s a travesty, because a July Technical Assessment Report issued by the EPA and other regulators found that U.S. automakers could meet existing national emission standards primarily by further improving the efficiency of internal-combustion engines. Why don’t they start here then, with their existing catalog?

The cost of compliance with upcoming efficiency standards could “put new vehicles out of financial reach of the average new-car purchaser” argues Mitch Bainwol, head of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) lobbying group.

The CFA disagrees. They contend that the AAM overestimated the cost of compliance by assuming that automotive technology wouldn’t advance past a 2014 benchmark. Clearly, that position no longer is tenable. Ford alone has announced its plans to launch 13 new hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery-electric cars by 2020. It is also interesting to note, at that same time, that Ford CEO Mark Fields said in a recent interview that no real market exists for those vehicles. Really, Mr. Fields? Really?

Forbes released findings just this week that say U.S. electric vehicle demand soared in 2016. Yesterday, The Guardian  reported that the U.K. is experiencing an electric vehicle boom like never before. Here on Gas2 we reported this week how EV and solar technologies are forecast to significantly reduce fossil fuel dependence by 2025.

Contradictions galore. But U.S. sport utility vehicles are soaring, according to the major U.S. automakers. They reason that fuel-economy standards will force automakers to build cars consumers just don’t want. Instead, they want lower emission standards, if anything. But U.S. carmakers have proven that they can beat CAFE targets, as evidenced by the most recent available 2015 model year data.

Why do U.S. carmakers cringe when CAFE standards come into the national conversation? The answer is probably best stated in an article from our sister publication, EV Obsession. The competitive advantage of large automakers is almost entirely in their knowledge, experience, and intellectual property surrounding the internal combustion engine. They don’t want to dive into the EV market because they’re afraid of what they don’t know. A massive product shift basically wipes out the usefulness of their expertise.

We all get wary when we’re asked to do something new or different. That doesn’t mean, however, that something out of our proverbial comfort zone is bad. And it’s time for the top U.S. carmakers to confess and switch into a 21st century technological perspective about transportation and CAFE standards. They have a moral obligation to car buyers everywhere — and, oh yeah, the planet.

Photo credit: follow777 via Foter.com / CC BY


Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She's an avid Formula One fan (this year's trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+