Are Automakers Pushing Back Against US Fuel Economy Standards?

While media have bandied a theoretical “54.5 mpg” national fuel economy target for 2025, actual mpg on window stickers by then may only indicate a fleet-wide average of 35-37 mpg – yet automakers are still reportedly pushing back.

In light of cheap gasoline, weaker than hoped-for electrified vehicle sales, and with an upcoming “midterm review” of federal fuel economy rules, manufacturers have been said to be exerting pressure in what is really a longstanding tradition.

Since before 2004 when automakers sued California over greenhouse gas rules, to this decade when they negotiated down federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) proposals, the history is there, and now eyes are on whether standards might be weakened.

As Union of Concerned Scientists analyst Dave Cooke said today however, there is no obvious “smoking gun” of overt unethical intent, but evidences add up to the point that the UCS, Bloomberg and others have reported automakers would like to broaden exceptions.

Tthe EPA says fuel economy improved 26 percent in the last 10 years. However, said Cooke, you can safely ignore unqualified reports that say "54.5" mpg. The standard factors things like credits for A/C and abiout 49 mpg actual is still 20-percvent higher than window stickers. That brings it to 37 mpg but because more trucks graded under easier standards are being bought, it could be closer to 35 mpg fleet-wide in 2025.

The EPA says fuel economy improved 26 percent in the last 10 years. However, said Cooke, you can safely ignore unqualified reports that project “54.5” mpg by 2025. CAFE factors things like credits for A/C and about 49 mpg actual is called for, but measured under a different testing protocol, that’s still more than 20-percent higher than window stickers will be. Cooke estimates under CAFE window stickers will read closer to 37 mpg but because more trucks graded under easier standards are being bought than initially anticipated, it could be closer to 35 mpg fleet-wide in 2025.

As a bit of background, CAFE was settled upon in August 2012, and after airing concerns and knocking down an initial proposal of 62 mpg, most automakers did sign on to the “54.5” mpg standard. A notable exception included Volkswagen which at the time said its (now scandalized) high-mpg clean diesel technology was where it would rather place its bets.

These 2017-2025 federal rules for all passenger cars and trucks sold in the U.S. were agreed upon under jurisdiction of the U.S. EPA and National Highway Transportation Administration and were also harmonized with California regulations.

Built into the agreement is the midterm evaluation in 2018 to see how things are going, and whether standards for 2022-2025 need to be amended. First up however is a technical assessment report (TAR) due June 2016 and jointly presented by the U.S. agencies and California’s Air Resources Board.

Environmentally minded readers may want to scan for further news now and going forward, but meanwhile word has it that automakers are privately and publicly resisting both actively and passively in defense of their interests.

Behind Closed Doors

In their Jan. 12 piece titled “America’s Big MPG Goals Are in Trouble,” Bloomberg’s John Lippert and Jeff Plungis did their level best to paint the picture but as has been the case to date, substantive evidence of outright automaker push-back is thin.

It opened saying last year in private meetings automakers said conventional internal combustion technology improvements were inadequate to meet 2025 regs of 163 g CO2/mile, thus more electrified vehicles were needed and this would cost more than expected.


On-the-record-public-comments by industry people were also brought to bear by Bloomberg to create a case that “MPG Goals are in trouble” along with what could be said about off-the-record comments Bloomberg said it was privy to.

“Privately, auto executives say they don’t expect the government to gut the targets unless Republicans retake the White House,” wrote Bloomberg. “They’re hoping to expand credits for green technology and roll back compliance deadlines. People familiar with the private meetings described the discussions but asked not to be named.”

While making the assertion clear that carmakers are not pleased, and lobbying hard, the nature of lobbying behind closed doors has made it very difficult to present stronger proof as allegations from other sources have also asserted.

Conspiratorial Allegations

Scuttlebutt from environmentally minded folk has included accusations of dastardly intent. Allegations have included things like General Motors really wants to sell SUVs and trucks unabated, is only building its Chevy Bolt for its greenwashing effect and regulatory compliance, and has no intent to really market or produce that many.

But while conspiracy theories have been floated, this has never been supported by irrefutable proof. GM furthermore, has adamantly denied such talk and has consistently said it is working a long-term plan.

SEE ALSO: ‘Not a compliance car,’ GM says 2017 Chevy Bolt can meet demand of over 50,000 per year


However, enough evidence does exist for theories – for what they are worth – to gain traction and green car enthusiasts wanting to see more zero-emission vehicles as of yesterday have alleged game playing on a very high level.

This week, not so much talking about CAFE, but the one automaker with zero conflict of interest against CAFE’s emissions rules and itself a goad to push carmakers to do more – Tesla – Green Car Reports alleged the Bolt was created as a measure against this disruptive company.

“We’d argue that it indicates an intensifying program of private and public actions by GM to counter Tesla directly, neutralize its competitive advantages, and attempt to force Tesla into a franchised-dealer model under a ‘level playing field’ rationale,” postulated the publication.

Public Statements

Arguments from the industry that federal standards are too tough have included invoking plummeting petroleum prices which was not expected in 2010-2011 when CAFE talks were underway, and poor sales of plug-in cars which were also not projected.

“Over the weekend I saw the lowest gas prices I’ve seen in a long time, at $1.68 – that’s a world of hurt for selling electric and selling efficiency,” said Mark Wakefield, managing director and head of the Americas automotive group at consultant AlixPartners reported Bloomberg. “Now you have consumers at odds with regulators, and, stuck in the middle, is the auto industry.”

CAFE standards as written actually can be met, according to the EPA, with only 1-3 percent plug-in cars, but their need – and California’s stronger Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) rules simultaneously requiring them – contribute to their being developed regardless.

SEE ALSO: Reaching 2025 CAFE Standards Will Be Easier Than Predicted

Further, according to the EPA, in 2014, automakers not only met regulations for the third time in a row, observed the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Rowland Hwang, they over-complied by a record margin.

SEE ALSO: CAFE Rules: Only 1-3 percent of cars need to be electric by 2025

The issues have Hwang concerned to the degree that he wrote a blog post titled “Strong Fuel Economy Standards Needed Even When Oil Prices Are Low” – just in case anyone actually thinks otherwise.

Actually people do, and one according to Bloomberg could be the head of Toyota’s U.S. operations, Bob Carter, who said the future looks uncertain.

“With $1.60 a gallon gas, consumer demand is clearly on full-size trucks that are 25 feet long,” Carter reportedly said.

SEE ALSO: No Toyota EV Minicar For Now

Toyota has also been one of the automakers that, aside from its plug-in Prius, has staunchly resisted plug-in technology since killing a city EV project in 2012 and now placing bigger bets on hydrogen fuel cell technology.

With an even less green fleet is Fiat-Chrysler who for years ranked last in EPA mpg standings, and the troubled company’s CEO Sergio Marchionne, has been called by environmentalists as a clear opponent to CAFE.

To its credit – pun possibly intended – Chrysler broke ground in the large family hauler segment with its 30-mile range plug-in Pacifica Hybrid due late this year.

To its credit – pun possibly intended – Chrysler broke ground in the large family hauler segment with its 30-mile range plug-in Pacifica Hybrid due late this year.

This month he was reported as saying federal rules are unsatisfactory, and said it is more cost effective to purchase green car credits at this point or earn credits with innovations like more efficient air conditioners.

Under the rules, the government allows carmakers to claim grams per mile for greener A/C systems as certain refrigerants are known greenhouse gases, so this is an expedient short of engineering vehicles with better tailpipe emissions.

Also being lobbied have been advanced safety technology and even window glazing to reduce A/C load. The argument for safety advancements like vehicle-to-vehicle communications, lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control and others has been they stand to save fuel and emissions.

These assertions, not able to be measured, have been rejected by regulators, but automotive interests including the Auto Alliance have continued to lobby for them.

Passive Resistance?

While automakers cry foul over expensive plug-in cars they say they cannot sell in sufficient volumes, Cooke said the UCS has observed vehicles marketed in limited numbers and sold only in California or CARB-rule states are part of the problem.

Further, effective marketing – or rather the lack thereof – has often been a constant refrain for certain plug-in vehicles, while budgets for truck marketing is reportedly a contributor over and above cheap gas and oft-reported American car-buying preferences.

According to Dan Becker, director of Washington watchdog group Safe Climate Campaign, most of the car industry’s $14 billion annual marketing budget goes toward truck promotion.

Further, the NRDC’s Hwang observed that major automakers may talk out of both sides of their mouth – trying to look environmentally minded on one hand, and working against those interests on another. A truck ad by Chevrolet for example documents a focus group of women who say a man looks less desirable standing next to an economical car compared to the exact same man next to a pickup truck.

Becker told Bloomberg if cheaper fuel alone is driving the shift away from those electrified vehicles carmakers say not enough people want, they ought not to need so many truck ads.

“They don’t make very many of them, they don’t advertise them and they don’t market them,” said Becker of electrified vehicles. “The industry is crying crocodile tears on gas prices, but they’re using it as an excuse not to make the vehicles they didn’t want to make in the first place.”

Also true is plug-in technology and even regular hybrid tech typically caters to upper socioeconomic groups. Green cars typically carry a premium over lower-priced comparable siblings and come highly contented.

At its launch of its spectacular 47-mpg Accord Hybrid in 2013, Honda marketers said the car was packed to near-Acura levels to anticipate the desires of folks making nearly six figures and up, and its price of $30,000-$37,000 was several thousand over a regular Accord.

Other indicators which have made advocates question electrified vehicle makers’ in-intentions include General Motors which has offered no mainstream priced Voltec spinoffs, and others who have not even bothered to develop a car as competitive as the Volt.

As Tesla has said in defending its direct-sales model, carmakers have an “inherent conflict of interest,” in cannibalizing their own bread and butter cars.

Nissan Leaf.

Nissan has been very bullish on electrification with its Leaf. Japanese competitor Toyota has said the small market Nissan is doing the heavy lifting starting now was not worth chasing. Yet. Honda has also neatly sidestepped plug-ins to a greater degree although it has released data-gathering cars like its limited-market Accord PHEV and Fit EV – both both since discontinued albeit with a 40-mile range PHEV promised in 2018.

Meanwhile, as mentioned, American consumers have voted with their bank accounts in favor of larger vehicles, and last year’s record 17.4 million U.S. sales saw strong numbers booked by crossovers, SUVs, and pickups. Hybrids constituted about 2.2 percent of the market and plug-ins made up around three quarters of a percent.

Further, if the adage is true that “where there’s a will there’s a way,” the ultimate question of automakers’ will has been raised over a notable absence of hybrid or plug-in trucks and SUVs.

Larger vehicles with only middling mpg stand to save much more fuel than relatively efficient cars made more efficient, but while this appears to be shifting, small and mid-sized automobiles are what the industry has overwhelmingly given consumers so far.

Big Money On The Line

Regulations play a strong role in shaping vehicle assortments for automakers and these are no small stakes.

In 2014 automakers reportedly spent $100 billion on research and development and despite facts that dismay green car advocates, there is evidence that the large ship that is the auto industry is turning, if slower than some would like.

Cooke noted carmakers and their statements made publicly along with private lobbying may also include the motive to simply carve out more room for themselves even though their intent is to meet regs.

While a multitude of conflicting motives may simultaneously exist, it should be noted the market and industry is a complexity. So, in amongst carmakers looking to be patted on the back for greenification efforts to their fleet on one hand, while alternately looking less than gung ho in other respects is a picture more nuanced than it might seem, he asserted.

Bottom line is automakers are global businesses he said, which weigh more variables than have been contemplated in this article, or that automakers will make public.

SEE ALSO: Does The $7,500 Plug-In Car Tax Credit Need Reform?

The flipside therefore of allegations over compliance cars and “crocodile tears” is automakers are working in real time in a massive macroeconomic equation. In amongst their priorities is a dictate that no self-respecting business wants to alienate customers while it needs also to balance all interests with myriad and conflicting business needs.

Further, the EPA says automakers are greening their fleet – however slowly – and even advocates believe they will continue to do so.

Rather than a minimum 1-3 percent plug-in cars required to meet regs in 2025 under EPA, Cooke estimated the U.S. may be buying closer to 4-5 percent, and by then things may just be warming up.

Model S by Tesla, one company not at all threatened by CAFE, and which actually has woven itself well into environmental future plans and incentives. It has booked profits selling its green car credits to other automakers.

Model S by Tesla, one company not at all threatened by CAFE, and which actually has woven itself well into environmental future plans and incentives. It has booked profits selling its green car credits to other automakers.

Regulations beyond then are expected to keep tightening and in any event the handwriting is written plainly for all to see.

For its part, de-facto standard setter California also aims for ZEVs to constitute 100 percent of new vehicle sales by 2040 and while U.S. standards are not formulated that far out, the feds are already working with CARB and so the game goes on.

Automakers meanwhile are continuing to play their role, but ultimately Cooke does not see a real threat to CAFE through 2025.

What’s more, Hwang noted, the EPA has covered its bases better so as not to be challenged in court, or otherwise on basis of law under its own rule-making.

As is always true however, the future is not here yet, so we shall see how things go.