Automakers and Regulators Scramble for Fuel Efficiency Compromise

Automakers, regulators, and environmentalists were sent scrambling to the negotiating table after President Barack Obama issued an executive order on Monday instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider California’s rules to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks.

National laws require an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, but California’s regulations—considered by most to be tougher than federal rules—could require the rough equivalent of more than 40 mpg.

Yesterday, the nonprofit Aspen Institute said it had convened representatives from Ford, General Motors, Honda, Toyota, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council to discuss the matter. According to the Institute, the parties “explored ways to achieve national and state goals for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy improvements.”

The New York Times reported that another private meeting will be held next week in Los Angeles with midlevel auto executives, state regulators and environmental leaders trying to work out a compromise. Perhaps for the first time, all the major players are showing real interest in fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions rules that satisfy targets at both the national and state level.

A Battle Over Numbers, and More

Automakers will argue that federal targets—signed by former President Bush in 2007 and set to take effect with 2011 vehicles—are more stringent than California’s objectives.

Charles Territo, spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an association of 11 vehicle manufacturers, told, “Applying the California standards to the rest of the country will actually produce lower fleet-wide fuel efficiency standards than the federal standards as proposed under the Energy Independence and Security Act.”

In fact, a comparison study conducted by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in February 2008 shows that in 2015, for example, California rules would produce a fleet fuel efficiency average in many states, although not in California, of 31.3 mpg—while federal guidelines would yield 31.8 miles per gallon. In another example, the fuel efficiency of trucks in 2015 in California would be 25.5 mpg under California rules, but 27.1 mpg under the federal law. (Fuel efficiency varies state-by-state depending on the number of cars versus trucks and large SUVs in those states.)

“I can see how they can torture the numbers,” said John DeCicco, senior analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund, in an interview with “The bottom line is that the California standards are far more effective in reducing emissions.” That point was also made in the executive summary of the CARB study: “California’s rules provide superior greenhouse gas benefits.”

Disagreements over competing numbers in forecasts and studies are unlikely to be resolved in upcoming meetings—because the underlying fight is for the power to establish the rules, and the ability of California to apply pressure for reform on urgent environmental issues. “Don’t be confused by pointing out selective numbers,” said DeCicco. “There is 40 years of history of California leading and the feds catching up. In each case, the automakers blocked progress. We are concerned if that ability to lead is taken away, what will we be left with?”

With the threat of California rules looming—and the fate of Detroit carmakers hanging on continued federal bailout money—automakers appear more prepared than ever to agree to aggressive fuel efficiency improvements that can work for all 50 states.

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  • Michael H.

    The Feds wanted to propose 31.8 mpg overall for the fleet. CARB proposes 31.3 overall for the fleet. What is confusing or selective about this fact? It seems central to the main point.

    Also, CARB’s claim that it provides “superior GHG benefits” was made before the new CAFE standards were proposed. That claim is no longer true, if it ever was true. Plus CARB emissions saving estimates apparently do not account for the fact that its rule exempts about 10% of the state fleets it regulates.

    Finally — “We are concerned if that ability to lead is taken away, what will be left with?” — ah, a fuel economy standard set by the Obama Administration?

    For more info, please refer to

  • Need2Change

    Well, Detroit has gotten the message that:

    1. we need to reduce pollution, and

    2. we need to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

    Hurray, rather than dragging feet and talking about what they can’t do, it appears they’re encouraging the development of standards that are attainable.

  • Ross Nicholson

    We should stop doing business with international cartels, so expect high tariffs on opec oil. Higher fuel economy standards are easily attainable since Detroit’s cars are too far from aerodynamic optimum and weigh 5 times as much as technologically feasible for most drivers. I wouldn’t fire all those engineers just yet, if I were you.

  • Bryce

    Just make a rule already….any rule, so that they can start working on it already!

  • AP


    Check out the increase in weight for Japanese cars since the 1980’s. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but the Civic weighs something like 50% more than it did then (2-3 times the horsepower, too: how wasteful!). Since a Cobalt weighs about the same as a Civic, I guess the Japanese cars weigh 5 times as much as they need to, too.

    As far as Detroit’s big vehicles, their going big into SUV’s was a response to consumer demand, in turn created by ridiculously low gasoline prices (the wholesale price in 1998 was about $.40/gallon, vs. $1.50 now). Blame the SUV’s on oil companies for selling cheap gasoline (we blame them when it’s expensive, so why not blame them when it’s cheap?).

    Further, Toyota was going big-time into full-sized SUV’s and pickups with their Mississippi plant, to be able to sell 500,000 gas-guzzling trucks/year. Only the rise in gas prices changed their mind.

    There seems to be a correlation here: when fuel prices are high, people buy fuel economy. Nothing else makes them do that.

    Which is what Detroit has been saying for 25 years: higher taxes reduce consumption, CAFE doesn’t.

  • veek

    All the confusion, politicking, and “torturing the numbers” clearly show the problems with having so many different standards and regulations.

  • Michigan Survivor

    This would all be a lot easier if they just came out and said this is the mpg you need to get by such and such date. The biggest thing people dont seem to understand is that a gasoline engine needs a minumum amount of fuel to run and we are already there. The only things that can be changed now is the size of the engine, the weight of the vehicle, gearing and number of gears in the transmission, and final drive gears. Now engine size, gearing, and number of gears all revolve around vehicle weight. Another thing people dont seem to understand is that vehicles get heavier the more comforts you offer in them ie. power seat, heated seats, abs, traction control, tire pressure sensors, etc. In a heavier vehicle such as a SUV these things are minor and only reflect a small portion of the vehicles over all weight, but in a small vehicles they add up very quick. The last thing people dont really seem to have a good grasp on is that the auto industry is driven by what the consumer wants. They dont build it and force you to buy it. Its a two way street you cant have it all. The bigger a vehicle gets the more power it has to have behind it to keep up with traffic.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Michigan Survivor,
    You’re right if you assume that a gasoline engine is the only solution to propelling an automobile. They are limited in their abilities. This is why all cars need to have electric drivetrains, either as a pure electric or using some form of hybrid drivetrain.
    Detroit just doesn’t get it and they are going to die because of it.
    Dumbing the car down to reduce emissions and consumption isn’t the solution (unless you’re in Europe). The pure ICE needs to be replaced with NEW technology that gives the consumer all that he/she wants (a car that is safe, comfortable, has low emissions AND good fuel economy).
    Detroit insists on playing the only game they seem to know (ICE) but that isn’t the solution.

  • AP

    ex-EV1 driver,
    Evidently no one else gets it either, because no one is making affordable electric cars.