The truth about car fleet standards: Your mileage may vary – a lot

November 30, 2015
Auto worker Sheri Thompson places the mileage sticker onto a 2015 Chevrolet Malibu being manufactured at GM's Fairfax assembly plant in Kansas City, Kansas May 4, 2015. REUTERS/Dave Kaup - RTX1BIGH

Auto worker Sheri Thompson places the mileage sticker onto a 2015 Chevrolet Malibu being manufactured at GM’s Fairfax assembly plant in Kansas City, Kansas May 4, 2015. REUTERS/Dave Kaup – RTX1BIGH

Volkswagen is in trouble for cheating on U.S. government regulations regarding the smog-reduction systems on its cars. But the entire automobile industry is cheating regarding fuel economy.

Then again — is it really cheating if the White House knows and does nothing?

Officially, new cars sold in the United States must average at least 29 miles per gallon. The University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, which tracks the actual mileage number of cars, just released a study showing actual fuel use of new cars being sold is 25 MPG.

That’s definitely an improvement over the recent past. The Transportation Research Institute finds that new-car fuel economy has been climbing steadily for years. In the fall of 2010, for example, the actual number was 22.5 MPG — now it’s 25 MPG, an 11 percent improvement in five years. Bravo!

But the real-world MPG of new cars is not as good as the law appears to mandate. This has many implications, among them:

  • Lower-than-expected fuel economy means new cars emit more greenhouse gases than they should. President Barack Obama will offer lofty rhetoric at this week’s climate change conference in Paris about how the world must fight greenhouse gases. Yet his own administration looks the other way on excessive greenhouse emissions from new cars sold in the United States.
  • Obama just cancelled the Keystone XL oil pipeline project, citing fears of greenhouse emissions. Yet strict enforcement of fuel-economy standards for new cars and light trucks would all but surely reduce greenhouse levels by more than cancelling the pipeline
  • Obama has said a signature achievement of his administration is a 2011 agreement that new-car fuel economy must rise to 54.5 MPG by 2025. Should that happen, it will be a magnificent engineering achievement. But if the real-world number is 11 percent improvement in the last five years, how can a 118 percent improvement be realized in the next 10 years? Because that’s what the president promised.

Federal fuel mileage numbers have long contained a hefty dose of make-believe. Like the unrealistic smog-emissions tests that Volkswagen figured out how to game, fuel-use tests were conducted under conditions unlike everyday driving. Cars, SUVs and pickup trucks have been tested carrying little weight, with the air-conditioners turned off and accelerated gently. All these reduce fuel consumption. But millions of real-world drivers jackrabbit at stoplights, crank up the A/C and have 200 pounds of junk in the wayback.

In recent years, the Environmental Protection Agency has tried to make MPG testing more realistic. The result is the “sticker number” shown in the windows of new cars at a dealership. This number is reasonably believable — a good consumer guide.

But for nearly all types of vehicles — small cars, full-sized cars, small SUVs, full-sized SUVs and pickup trucks — the window-sticker MPG number is noticeably lower than law requires. “The Obama administration set strong but flexible rules to boost the fuel efficiency of new American cars,” Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.) said recently, “from 27.5 mpg to 30.2 mpg in 2011 and up to 34.5 mpg in 2016.” The University of Michigan finds that the actual number in 2011 wasn’t 27.5 MPG but 22 MPG. With the current actual number at 25 MPG, there’s little likelihood will rise to 34.5 MPG in the 2016 model year, let alone to 54.5 MPG by 2025.

The Obama administration has proposed to regulate greenhouse gases from electric power plants — and with artificially triggered climate change scientifically proven, that’s a good idea. So why are automakers getting a pass on enforcement of mileage standards?

The answer is the United Auto Workers. The UAW, one of the strongest constituents of the Democratic Party, represents labor at General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler, where heavy, low-mileage SUVs and pickup trucks, the vehicles that are pushing down the MPG average, are essential to profits. The three top-selling passenger vehicles in the United States are large, low-mileage Detroit products.

Many high-mileage, environmentally responsible cars are built in the United States by American workers who earn wages at or above union levels. But those workers, such as at Honda factories in Ohio, or Toyota assembly plants in Kentucky and Indiana, are not UAW members. They mean very little to the White House politically. Profitability for the Detroit Big Three, on the other hand, is of tremendous political value to the president and Democrats in Congress.

The final factor is that greenhouse regulation of power plants only impacts big, faraway corporations — most people don’t even know where the installation that supplies their electricity is located. Strict enforcement of MPG rules, by contrast, would prevent Americans from buying heavy, high-horsepower vehicles. And everyone thinks someone else should conserve energy!

So the White House averts its eyes from vehicles like the Cadillac Escalade ESV (16 MPG, 8.9 tons of greenhouse gases emitted annually) or the Dodge Ram 1500 (15 MPG, 9.7 tons of greenhouse gas annually).

On paper, there’s been dramatic progress to improve fuel economy. In the showroom, it’s another story.

2 comments

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To double fuel economy one can think of doubling the number of people miles per gallon. The simplest way to this end is to double the number of people in each car. Sedans with only a driver can move three additional people in a comfortable manner. The same amount of people are moved with less cars on the road and thus less gallons of gas consumed.

This is a behavioral change which can be encouraged in several ways, for example: Taxes levied on drivers with empty seats, especially in dense metropolitan areas, propaganda encouraging people to group together to reduce traffic, and offering tax breaks for those who form permanent ride sharing groups.

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

More buses or trains would help. Where I live in rural MS there are zero buses, zero trains, zero subways. So many people drive large pickup trucks that you had better hope you are not in a small car and get hit by a truck.

Posted by Pumbaa | Report as abusive