2016 Fuel Economy Standards


Yesterday, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency released new fuel-economy standards for model years 2012 to 2016. In short, fuel economy is going to improve.Under the new rules, combined fleet fuel economy will have to increase to 29.7 mpg for the 2012 model year, ramping up to 34.1 mpg by 2016. The passenger-car slice of that number goes from 33.3 (2012) to 37.8 mpg (2016) while light trucks increase from 25.4 to 28.8 mpg. The current standard is 27.5 mpg for cars and 23.5 mpg for light trucks.

It’s not quite that simple.

Keep in mind that these are unadjusted fuel-economy figures, based on the raw numbers from the old CAFE test (this is done in order to keep comparisons to old standards relevant). The EPA fuel economy you see on the window sticker of a new car represents the adjusted number, which takes into account newer tests and some standard fudge factors to come up with numbers that represent real-world fuel economy. Based on the raw numbers, some automakers already exceed the 2012 standard.

No, really, it’s not that simple.

Further complicating these new standards is the use of a vehicle’s footprint—the area bounded by the wheelbase and track—to calculate a specific fuel economy for each model. In short, smaller vehicles will have to get better fuel economy than larger vehicles based on footprint size, although there are upper and lower limits for these footprint sizes.

A further wrinkle is the fact that the EPA decided that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas and is thus allowed to regulate those emissions. Under the EPA rules, vehicles would have to achieve an average of 35.5 mpg. That figure is an equivalent, however, because credits can be earned for making improvements to air-conditioning systems. With respect to the EPA rule, it looks like automakers will be faced with the choice of changing the A/C system or meeting a higher mpg standard. As before, fuel economy is averaged over an entire fleet, so that a fuel-sipping Chevy Volt will offset the thirstier Corvette. In addition, fuel economy figures higher than the standard will earn credits that can be sold to other automakers.

Unintended Consequences

In general, these new standards have been carefully planned and will definitely make cars more efficient. Some of that efficiency will be achieved with higher-cost technology that may or may not be offset by fuel savings. And if fuel prices do not dramatically increase, these new standards will actually make driving less expensive per mile, which will actually encourage more driving and fuel consumption. Finally, automakers have an incentive to continue making larger cars since they will have lower fuel-economy targets


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