Detroit – The Department of Transportation chose Earth Day to roll out its new fuel mileage (CAFE) rules as mandated by Congress, and the numbers show just how onerous this mandate will be.
On average, engine efficiencies have advanced by 1.5 percent per year for the last 20 years, with most of that gain going to size and horsepower — as demanded by consumers. As a result, fuel mileage averages have been flat.
Now, however, Congress is overriding customers to make fuel efficiency the industry’s Number One priority. But in order to meet the federal standards for cars of 35.7 mpg by 2015 (trucks are mandated for 31.8 on the way to a fleet average of 35 by 2020), automakers will have to increase engine efficiencies by 4.6 percent per year.
Obviously, this is triple current efficiency gains, which is why automakers estimate the costs of the mandate of anywhere between $2,500 and $8,000 per vehicle, or roughly the price of adding expensive technologies like diesel and hybrid electrics to the fleet (one has only to watch Toyota’s current TV ads bragging about the fuel efficiency of its smallest, non-hybrid sedan – the 30.5 mpg Corolla – to understand the challenge) . Of course, in order to meet the federal standards, customers will actually have to buy the vehicles, since CAFE standards are based on unit sales.
Given the premium price of fuel-efficient vehicles and relative consumer indifference (even in the age of $3.50 a gallon gas) to fuel economy, engineers are understandably concerned about making the federal standards (though being engineers, they are also geeked for the challenge). As one Big Three engineer told me: “Right now, I don’t know how we get there.”
Of course, gas prices could continue their meteoric rise – historically, the only factor that has influenced buyer trends toward fuel-efficient cars. European nations, for example, currently average 40 mpg (on a majority diesel fleet). Their gas prices? Over $7 a gallon.