Consumers Union Asks Agencies To Take Consumer Interest Seriously in Fuel Economy Assessment

Consumers Union, the policy and action arm of Consumer Reports, today submitted comments and a petition signed by nearly 32,000 consumers supporting federal fuel economy standards during the midterm review period of the Technical Assessment Report.

In a letter signed by Shannon Baker-Branstetter, policy counsel for Consumers Union, arguments were made on how the 2025 fuel economy targets can be met. It was presented to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the California Air Resources Board.

The letter also includes findings from a nationally representative survey conducted in May 2016. From that survey, Consumers Union said that it found “strong majority support for robust fuel economy standards and also found that fuel economy is the number one attribute vehicle owners would like to see improved.”

As you can see in this first chart from the survey, more than half of the surveyed consumers expect better fuel economy with their next vehicle purchase.

Consumers Union Chart 1 - Expected change in fuel economy with the next vehicle purchase v2

In July, the federal agencies and California released a fuel economy midterm technical report. There were several media quotes from auto industry groups saying the standards won’t be reached in the context of low gasoline prices and increased sales of pickups, SUVs, and large cars. Consumers Union has been compiling data and analysis on these issues, and has wanted its perspectives to be heard by the government agencies.

Public comments will be considered by the new president and agencies as the fuel economy standards enter the next phase in 2017.

Consumers Union said that automakers are continuing to develop the technology to make better, safer, and more efficient vehicles. The real benefits are coming from reduced fuel consumption, improvements to the vehicle fleet, and consumers saving trillions of dollars in fuel costs. EPA, NHTSA, and CARB should push forward with the standard to continue this progress, the organization said.

Consumers finding net savings from the new vehicles they’re driving is one of the principle arguments being made by Consumers Union. The organization had commissioned a study from Synapse Energy Economics to forecast the economic issues once the 2025 standards are in place.

The study found that the more stringent 2025 fuel economy standards will lead to substantial savings for owners of both cars and trucks. The study estimates the new rules would bring $3,200 in savings per car and $4,800 per trucks.

Figures 3 and 4 from the Consumers Union paper submitted to the agencies breaks out cars and trucks over 10 years, comparing the compliance costs with fuel savings. Most of that cost will take place in the first five years, with a drop expected by year six.

Consumers Union Figure 3 - Annual car compliance costs and fuel savings v2

Consumers Union Figure 4 - Annual truck compliance costs and fuel savings v2


Consumers are pleased with their choices when car shopping these days, according to the survey. The federal rules encourage automakers to design and sell vehicles offering consumers a broad selection in SUVs and trucks with better fuel economy.

The study compares vehicle offerings today with 10 years ago. This year, there are dozens of light-duty trucks and SUVs that get in the mid- to high-20s miles per gallon, with many of them being non-hybrids. In 2006, there was only a small number of these vehicles and most were hybrids. Consumers Union expects to see more improvements coming from vehicle selection and variety of powertrains that will give consumers more choices and support compliance with the increasing standards.

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Disruption in oil supply and spiking gas prices is also addressed in the study. As was seen in 2008 and after, fuel price increases have a drastic effect on new vehicle selections and resale values.

“By making the investments over a longer time frame, automakers and consumers can avoid more costly market shifts that occur more suddenly and without enough time to redesign a new fleet or buy new vehicles when gas price swings occur,” the Consumers Union letter said.

Consumers Union said that it’s investigated the relationship between fuel economy and owner satisfaction. That study found that higher fuel efficiency is associated with higher owner satisfaction in nearly all cases studied by the organization.

During this midterm review process where the agencies finalize model year 2022-2025 standards and post-2025 standards are contemplated, Consumers Union urges that the end goals are carefully considered. They’d like the agencies to watch out for the “footprint creep,” when automakers enlarge vehicles to water down their compliance requirements.

Another problem Consumers Union advised that the agencies watch for is “heavy cross-class subsidization,” where automakers rely on improvements to a limited class of vehicles and avoid improvements to other vehicle classes.

“Setting ‘backstops’ by vehicle size could complement the footprint-based standards to further avoid perverse incentives that undermine safety, and help provide greater market certainty and assurance that the programs’ goals and benefits will be realized,” Consumers Union said.