Maybe you didn't know your car was a "light-duty vehicle," but for the purposes of the federal government's fuel economy and greenhouse gas rules and regulations, it is. Do you think the old crate in your driveway is an environmental paragon? Unless it's a Prius, probably not. But a growing coalition of green groups (and even the odd dealer or two) thinks it can be transformed, like Cinderella, into a glittering star of the party, attaining no less than 60 miles per gallon. And that's without hybrid drive or a trunk full of batteries.
This week, President Obama is expected to announce a framework for long-range 2017-2025 light-duty fuel economy/greenhouse gas standards. The existing rules, hammered through last May and in place through 2016, call for cars to reach 35.5 mpg by that point. All the parties, including environmentalists, car companies and both the states and federal government, were all smiles at the signing ceremony. But getting agreement on a big hike to 60 mpg by 2025 will be harder.
Obama isn't likely to just shove a tall target down the automakers' throats: He'll offer a range of possibilities, with high and low goals, and then invite comments. There will be quite a bit of debate over this before a hard number is available.
John German, a senior fellow and program director for the International Council for Clean Transportation, says that cars can get to 60 mpg by doubling the efficiency of the internal-combustion engine (enabled by computerized controls), lightweight materials including new forms of steel, reduced rolling resistance from tires, and aerodynamic improvements.
Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, says that Americans really want 60 mpg. And it's a win-win when it comes to maintaining the family budget. Despite higher purchase prices, Cooper says, "60 mpg cars are cash-flow positive from year one. Trucks take a bit longer. The target is clearly consumer friendly, and that's why consumers consistently favor it."
Cooper says that more people would drive fuel-efficient cars if they were available. "Ninety nine percent of the models available don't get 30 mpg," he said. "Automakers are not making the cars that are responsive to the demand." The consumer federation has a new poll out later in the week, but a Mellman Group survey earlier this month said that 74 percent favor a 60 mpg standard, and 80 percent would be OK with paying an additional $3,000 for a 2025 vehicle if it would save then that same $3,000 in fuel costs over four years. Similar majorities think the technology is already available to reach the target, and that it would create jobs.
Auto dealers want more gas sippers, too. Adam Lee is a third-generation multi-brand dealer in Maine, with his 20 Lee Auto Mall showrooms in eight cities selling Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Dodge, Jeep, GMC, Chrysler and Scion. The Japanese companies on that list get to 30 mpg on multiple models, but Chrysler has been notoriously recalcitrant.
Lee says that the first question his customers always ask is, "What kind of deal can I get?" But the second one is, "What can I get that has good fuel economy?" Consumers today, he said, have a "higher expectation" of good gas mileage that isn't being satisfied by the Dodge trucks and Jeeps in his lineup. And because they're "feeling the pinch at the gas pump," he maintains a long list of people looking for used Priuses.
German wants people to understand that high fuel economy targets don't mean that people will be forced into tiny cars. What he calls the "footprint curve" means that there are specific improvement targets for all different vehicle sizes. "For a manufacturer that makes mainly trucks, the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) is lower," he said. "It doesn't affect the size of cars."
But it does affect how they work. Carmakers get CAFE credits for zero-emission vehicles, and that's why one reason we're seeing so many green cars hitting the market at the end of the year and in early 2011.
By the way, a study by John DeCicco of the University of Michigan said that cars could reach 74 mpg by 2035 without adding electric cars to the mix. The technology is out there.
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