Whale Watching: Says Who?
The Futurs of EPA and CAFE
Lost among headlines about raising the national debt ceiling a couple months ago was President Obama's announcement of a 54.5-mpg average for cars and light trucks by 2025. This is "an agreement in principle," and won't be finalized until 2012 after the public gets a chance to weigh in. (Hint, hint.)
Differences in EPA and CAFE methodology notwithstanding, the increase roughly doubles the current standard and is up 20 mpg from the 2016 target. Cars are pegged at 62 mpg and trucks at 44. That's realistic for things like CR-Vs, as the government calls them trucks, but they aren't trucks as you and I know them. Analysts figure the average new ride will deliver 40 mpg, which I can easily do now -- in a car.
The EPA says the new average will save drivers $8000 in fuel costs over the vehicle's life, and save the country almost half the oil it imports from OPEC. The Center for Auto Research claims it will add $9000 to the average cost of a vehicle purchase, which EPA and NHTSA counter is more like $2100-$2600.
The announcement was conven-iently made in front of a Ram plug-in hybrid for which Ram Truck has announced no production plans, and an F-150 EcoBoost. According to www.fueleconomy.gov, an F-150 2WD turbo rates 16/22 mpg city/highway with power rivaling the 6.2-liter, which is rated at 13/18. Direct comparisons are difficult, since the entire engine range isn't offered in any single F-150 model. If an EcoBoost adds $1750 and gets 23-percent-better mileage than a 6.2, do you really think Ford can more than double the mileage for $2600? Will the government's estimation of a 17-fold increase in hybrid sales considerably drop prices for the same?
Naturally, there are potential loopholes. One is that the plan hasn't been finalized, and no one knows if the next administration might repeal it. Also, parties must meet in a decade or so to see how things are going and if the targets are still realistic.
Most of the major car companies signed on, including GM and Chrysler. It was difficult not to, considering the last few years. GM said in a statement it "agreed in principle on proposed fuel economy standards from 2017 through 2025. This proposed rule presents a path forward that greatly improves fuel economy while preserving customer choice and future industry growth. GM plans to pursue the technical challenge and to lead in delivering new fuel-saving technologies in cars and trucks customers want to buy and can afford."
Economy-minded makers like Honda and Hyundai joined, as did thirstier brands like BMW and Jaguar-Land Rover. BMW named the "one national standard" aspect echoed by the majority, though California could still change its mind. BMW also pointed out that in the last 15 years it managed a CO2 reduction of 30 percent, the largest in its class. My pessimism is justified and, given 30 percent in 15 years, I question 100 percent (or more) in the next 14.
Mercedes-Benz, with a full line of vehicles and strategies, wasn't on the approving list. Neither was Volkswagen, with its goal to be the world's largest carmaker before 2025. These companies' thoughts reflect an understanding of how the original CAFE concept didn't work, and indirectly take aim at Washington, high-value political allies, and government preference of certain technologies over others.
Says Tony Cervone, executive vice president for communications at Volkswagen: "Volkswagen does not endorse the proposal under discussion. It places an unfairly high burden on passenger cars, while allowing special compliance flexibility for heavier light trucks. Passenger cars would be required to achieve 5-percent annual improvements, and light trucks 3.5-percent annual improvements. The largest trucks carry almost no burden for the 2017-2020 timeframe, and are granted numerous ways to mathematically meet targets in the outlying years without significant real-world gains. The proposal encourages manufacturers and customers to shift toward larger, less-efficient vehicles, defeating the goal of reduced greenhouse gas emissions. If one-third of the vehicles on the road today were clean diesel, the U.S. would save 1.4 million barrels of oil a day. Yet there is no consideration in the current proposal for the positive impact clean diesels can have on fuel consumption here in the U.S."
In the future, Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Vehicles manager Michelle Robinson says, "We will still see the same types of vehicles on the road, but they will be dramatically more fuel-efficient, cost less to operate, and produce less pollution." All admirable goals, but considering my 20-year-old pickup gets better mileage and costs less to operate than a new one (that carries no more), I need my rose-colored glasses to envision such substantial advances.
I don't think this latest attempt will kill the U.S. car business. Detroit has begun to demonstrate it knows how to make a profit on something other than a truck or SUV. I've already driven plenty of high-fuel-economy vehicles that would pass 2025 standards, but Washington has kept many them out of our hands. Alas, none of them could tow much or carry more than four people and some luggage.