Consumer Reports Refutes ‘Three Big Myths’ On How Realistic Fuel Economy Standards Are

Auto industry groups have been saying that hitting fuel economy standards is unattainable due to the popularity of gas-thirsty large vehicles, but Consumer Reports has reached a different conclusion.

With federal agencies and California releasing a fuel economy midterm technical report last month, there have been a lot of media quotes from auto industry groups saying that the standards are too high to reach. The main argument made has focused on increased sales of pickups, SUVs, and large cars as gasoline prices stay down.

Consumer Reports just posted a blog commentary written by Consumers Union policy counsel Shannon Baker-Branstetter and senior communications associate Jason Kuruvilla. They’ve explored the large vehicle argument and two others to try and set the record straight.

Myth 1

“Fact: Fuel economy standards are flexible and adjust based on consumer choices,” writes Consumer Reports.

When looking at new vehicle purchases being weighted toward gas-thirsty trucks and SUVs, Consumers Union makes the point that fuel economy standards are flexible and can adjust based on what type of vehicle is purchased. Cars are supposed to reach an average of 45 mpg on window stickers by 2025, while larger vehicles like trucks and SUVs should reach an average requirement of 32 mpg by that year.

Source: EPA via Consumer Reports.

Source: EPA via Consumer Reports.

The mpg targets also have a mixed ratio based on the size of the vehicle sold, with large vehicles having lower mpg standards to follow than small vehicles. For example, the target for the small compact Honda Fit will be 49 mpg and the larger midsize Ford Fusion will be 44 mpg. On the truck/SUV side, the small SUV Ford Escape 4WD is expected to reach 38 mpg and the large pickup Chevy Silverado with extended cab should meet the target of 26 mpg.

Automakers can still be in compliance even if certain vehicles go above the standard while others fall below it, and they do have some flexibility on improvements to make in their product pipelines. So far, automakers have regularly exceeded the requirements for cars and trucks, according to Consumers Union.

Source: EPA via Consumer Reports.

Source: EPA via Consumer Reports.

While the 2012 target was set at reaching an average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by 2025, car buyers have been buying larger vehicles in recent years as gas prices have stayed down. The midterm report did take this into account, and it could change again depending on what consumers purchase in the next few years, even while manufacturers stay in compliance with the original size-based standard, Consumers Union said.

Baker-Branstetter and Kuruvilla expressed concern in their blog post over the way the auto industry can “conflate these points.” Their statements suggest automakers will have to force consumers to buy smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. They agree more with the Environmental Protection Agency’s high-ranking official Chris Gundler, who told the Wall Street Journal that he wanted to “bust this myth.” As Gundler stated, “These standards were deliberately designed to preserve consumer choice. This is not a compliance problem.”

SEE ALSO: 10 Myths About Fuel Economy

Myth 2

“Fact: Automakers will meet fuel economy standards primarily through improvements to traditional gas engines,” writes the publication.

The second myth explored in the commentary deals with what they see as misconception over automakers being forced into selling a lot of plug-in electrified vehicles and hybrids. Those sales numbers are being hurt by low gas prices.

Myth 3

“Fact: Thanks to lower fuel consumption from fuel economy standards, most consumers will see net savings in their first month of ownership,” writes Consumer Reports.

The fact is that automakers will be meeting the fuel economy standards through fuel efficiency improvements in traditional gas engines. The federal agencies’ midterm technical report suggests that improvements to traditional internal combustion engines have already been more fuel efficient than originally anticipated. New technologies such as turbocharged and downsized gasoline engines, 8-speed and other advanced transmissions, and stop-start systems, are making big fuel economy improvements.

The third myth explored the cost of fuel economy compliance being too high, which will hurt consumers as vehicle sticker prices shoot up beyond affordability. Consumer Reports says that a more likely scenario will be consumers enjoying net saving in their first month of ownership as vehicle fuel consumption goes down.

Vehicle prices are expected to increase as automakers invest more in fuel efficient technologies to comply with fuel economy standards. These costs are more than offset by consumer savings on gasoline, based research by Consumers Union, the federal agencies, and others. Note, too, that the numbers below are based on paying cash up-front for a vehicle.

Consumers Union also noted that most consumers finance new cars, which spreads the total vehicle cost over the life of the loan. Savings in gasoline cost are immediate.

Consumer Reports