Citing desire to reduce fuel consumption and emissions, the Obama administration is continuing to push hard to increase the U.S. fleet-wide mpg standards required in just a few years from now.

Ongoing negotiations between the White House and auto industry are now centered on a proposed 56.2 mpg Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard for 2017-2025.
If settled on in September, so high a mandate would largely be applauded by environmentalists and some others in favor of more efficient vehicles, such as hybrids and electrics, who now favor the administration’s stance.

In contrast, the strict mpg requirement is being decried as a virtual death knell to SUVs, high-power vehicles and safer (more massive) cars by opponents in the auto industry.

A fleet-wide standard averaging 56.2 mpg would effectively force automakers to spend billions to come up with many more economical solutions for internal combustion engine vehicles, plus more electric and hybrid vehicles.

It should be noted that the way CAFE numbers are calculated is different than how the EPA estimates mpg on the window sticker.

Edmunds figures a 56.2-mpg CAFE standard equals an EPA rating of 41 mpg in combined city and highway driving. The 2016 CAFE standard of 35.5 mpg equals about 27 mpg EPA, and a 62 mpg standard would equal a combined 44 mpg.

Raising the bar again

This move to make fuel efficiency standards more stringent follows on the heels of a requirement to increase to 35 mpg by 2016 enacted just a couple years ago.

Since the 1970s fuel efficiency standards had not changed much, but the 35 mpg hoop was quickly placed as a new one to jump through, and now 56.2 mpg is being argued over.

For his part, the president has said he wants far more fuel efficiency, as his prior campaigning for election had stated.

“Climate change and our dependence on foreign oil, if left unaddressed, will continue to weaken our economy and threaten our national security,” Obama had said on the campaign trail.

Since last year the prospect of a 62 mpg (100 km) CAFE standard had been in consideration, but over the last weekend in June, the administration came down to 56.2 mpg in a concession toward 47 mpg proposed by auto industry stakeholders.

The industry has consistently argued that mandating fuel efficiency from on high will not necessarily make consumers more favorably disposed toward efficient vehicles.

“So you can design and build an auto that has this incredible technology on it, but if no one can afford to purchase it, the vehicle just sits there on the sales lot,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman for the industry group Auto Alliance. “And worst of all, that customer – instead of buying the new auto – drives around in their old automobile, which certainly doesn’t have all the fuel technology that we’re working to introduce into the fleet.”

Dan Becker, the director of the policy group Safe Climate Campaign begs to differ however.
The industry already drove itself to bankruptcy pushing SUVs and inefficient vehicles, he said, and he questioned whether automakers are really in touch with what consumers will buy.

“You know, the auto industry never learns a new trick,” adds Becker. “This is the same argument that they used in 1974 when they testified against the original fuel economy law. The technology that is in the hybrid vehicle is something American people love. They like high tech products. They don’t want a 1950s engine in a 2010 or 2011 vehicle. And there are costs to improving the technology. They’re real. But they’re made up for two to three times by savings at the gas pump.”

As it is, everything is still up for debate. And in the mean time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will be examining their proposal (given to automakers at the White House) more closely.

Similarly, the opposed auto industry stakeholders are crunching their counter-proposals to further justify why the standard should be lower.

In September NHTSA and the EPA will issue a definitive standard for automakers to meet.

This will be followed by many months of comment gathering and counter proposals from stakeholders including industry, environmental and safety advocates, as well as the public.

By July 2012, new CAFE regulations for 2017-2025 are due to be in place, giving automakers five years to figure out how they will meet them from 2017 onward.

No one knows how this will shake out, but it would at least appear the case for more EVs and hybrids could become much stronger.

Source: GM-Volt, PRI