A 35 mpg future for your car
Car buyers' needs won't change but car companies will have to get more creative at meeting them.
By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer
December 13 2007
On the face of it, 35 mpg may sound like a huge leap. It would be the first major increase in fuel-economy standards in more than 30 years, and there are only a couple of mass-market cars - the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid - that actually get Environmental Protection Agency-estimated fuel economy better than 35 mpg in combined city and highway driving.
Current rules require cars to get an overall average of at least 27.5 mpg and trucks to average at least 22.5 mpg. In both cases, the actual average of all such vehicles exceeds those numbers, said Charles Territo of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group.
But there are several important points to remember about these new rules. They're very complicated. Learning contract bridge seems almost simple by comparison. Manufacturers say they provide needed flexibility, though.
When talking about fuel economy rules, we aren't talking about EPA estimated fuel economy. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules are administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) not the EPA and the CAFE program works with a different set of fuel economy figures. The fuel economy figures used for judging CAFE compliance are at least 25 percent higher than the EPA figures the public sees, according to EPA documents.
Different companies, different numbers
Under these new rules we're talking about, 35 mpg would be the average for all vehicles produced by all manufacturers. Individual fuel economy goals for each car company would by set by NHTSA in such a way that the all the the vehicles sold by all manufacturers will average out to 35 mpg.
A simplified example: One car maker could have a NHTSA-required target of 31 mpg. Another car maker might have 36 mpg, and another would have 38. Average the three together, and you get 35 mpg.
The first goals will be set in 2011 and goals will gradually become more stringent, as needed, until the 2020 goal is met. By 2020 some manufacturers will have goals that exceed 35 mpg, others will have lower goals.
As the proposed rules are currently written, manufacturers' fleets are still divided into cars and light trucks. Each company will be assigned a separate goal for its cars and for its trucks.
Meeting these requirements won't be easy. General Motors executives have said they will have to completely rethink their future product plans if these rules are enacted.
But there are several steps car companies can take in the short term to meet new fuel economy rules as they become gradually more strict. (And they will come stricter for all car companies. Nobody gets to stand still.) The challenge will be meeting consumer and government demands at the same time.
"It's not actually a problem of available technology, but technology that the customer will be willing to pay for," said Sandy Stojkovski of Ricardo, Inc., an auto-parts supplier specializing in fuel-economy technology.
In the near term, diesel engines, which get much better fuel economy than gasoline engines, will probably play a large part. The challenge is getting consumers to accept that the modern diesel really is much better than the clanky, coughing, belching beast of the 1980s, the last time they were widely sold here in passenger vehicles.