Fuel economy at the government's CAFE

Consumer Reports News: May 02, 2006 04:42 PM

With fuel economy, gasoline prices, and oil supply dominating headlines, we will make periodic blog postings looking at both our current situation and future possibilities.

Today’s fuel economy challenges can trace their roots back to the original oil crisis in the early 1970s, from which emerged federal gas mileage standards commonly known as CAFE, an acronym for Corporate Average Fuel Economy.

Enacted in 1975, CAFE regulations require an automaker’s entire fleet of passenger vehicles to meet an average fuel economy target. The law set lower mileage targets for so-called light trucks--pickups, vans, and SUVs--than for cars on the assumption (mostly correct at the time) that they were used mainly by farmers and laborers for work, and they would lose some utility if forced to get better mileage. As of this year, those targets are 27.5 mpg for cars and 21.7 mpg for light trucks.

We feel that discrepancy between cars and trucks is one reason for the proliferation of pickups, SUVs and minivans. After all, why should an automaker build a heavy, full-sized wagon that could hurt its fleet fuel-economy average when the family transporter could be replaced by an SUV which has lower mileage requirements, and fatter profit margins? In 2005, about half of the new passenger vehicles sold were classified as ”light trucks“ by this standard.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which administers the rule, has recently changed the standards for light trucks.

Instead of a single light-truck mileage target that all automakers have to meet, mileage standards will be based on the size of the vehicle. The larger the truck, the lower the mileage it has to meet. Each automaker will have its own target for light trucks, based on its own projections of how many large and small vehicles it plans to build. (Read the NHTSA proposal.)

According to NHTSA, on average, across all major automakers, the light-truck mileage targets will be raised to 24 mpg. Transportation secretary Norman Maneta says the revisions will force automakers to apply fuel-saving technology equally across their model ranges. NHTSA estimates the revision will save 10.7 billion gallons of gasoline overall.

By raising the CAFE standards, these new regulations are a step in the right direction, but we feel the government can push the automotive industry even further. By evolving its current policy, the EPA could drive the production of more fuel-efficient vehicles, close CAFE-compliance loopholes, and further reduce the United States‘ dependency on foreign oil.

--Eric Evarts & Jeff Bartlett

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