Pain at the Pump as Summer Driving Season Kicks Off

As the summer driving season kicks into gear, consumers will be paying dearly at the pump.  The answer is more fuel-efficient vehicles, but the automakers are instead launching a misinformation campaign while policymakers continue to demand less than the best for fuel economy.

Posted:  5/25/2007

Related: Anti-fuel economy ad blitz based on distortions

According to the AAA, approximately 32.1 million people expect to drive 100 miles roundtrip from home during the Memorial Day weekend — a weekend in which the average national retail gasoline price is $3.22 a gallon.

Automakers could do something about our pain at the pump by making more fuel efficient vehicles, but their cynical response instead is a nationwide advertising campaign to oppose any legislation requiring them to do just that.

Meanwhile, the legislation they are opposing would demand only modest increases in corporate average fuel economy — much less than automakers could and should achieve.  And a recent high-profile announcement by the White House about fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions dropped clues that the administration is continuing its policy of good talk without enough walk.

We Can Do Better

What, at base, are the automakers opposing?  Currently, the truck fleet achieves an average fuel economy of 21.8 mpg, and the car fleet reaches 30 mpg (based on NHTSA calculations).   The fuel economy bill that was recently approved by a Senate committee sets a target of merely 35 mpg thirteen years hence, which is 5 mpg less than the Senate was poised to require within ten years ago, in 1990.   Additionally, the bill gives the government excuses not to reach the “target” — if the target or a mandatory increase is not “cost-effective” — so that it’s not even a mandatory target at all.

Best-in-class fuel economy performers are already well on their way to getting fuel economy in excess of the 35 mile per gallon target:

Class

Make

Model

Fuel Economy city/hwy (mpg)

Transmission

Subcompact

Toyota

Yaris

34/39

34/40

4-speed auto

5-speed manual

Compact

Honda

Civic Hybrid

49/51

Continuously variable

Toyota

Corolla

32/41

5-speed manual

Midsize

Toyota

Prius (Hybrid)

60/51

Continuously variable

Nissan

Versa

30/34

6-speed manual

Large Car

Hyundai

Sonata

24/33

24/34

4-speed auto

5-speed manual

Small Station Wagon

Honda

Fit

33/38

31/38

5-speed manual

5-speed auto

Midsize Station Wagon

Ford

Focus Wagon

27/34

27/37

4-speed auto

5-speed manual

Standard Pickup Truck 2WD

Ford

Ranger 2.3L – 4 cylinder engine

24/29

5-speed manual

Minivan

Dodge

Caravan

20/26

4-speed auto

SUV 2WD

Ford

Escape Hybrid

36/31

Continuously variable

Ford

Escape

24/29

5-speed manual

Honda

CR-V

23/30

5-speed auto

SUV 4WD

Jeep

Compass

25/29

5-speed manual

 

If all vehicles were getting their best-in-class fuel economy:

  • the average fuel economy for cars would be nearly 37 miles per gallon, and
  • the average fuel economy for light trucks would be 27 miles per gallon.

With no change in the market share of light trucks, a fleet fuel economy of 31 miles per gallon is already being achieved by the best-in-class fuel economy performers. 

The Senate bill that the automakers are spending their ad dollars opposing does not even push auto manufacturers to aggressively adopt existing technology being used in the best performing vehicles on the road today.

We Must Do Better

Passenger car and light truck fuel economy for 2005 were both at the highest levels recorded; however, the overall fleet fuel economy was only 25.2 miles per gallon, owing to the increased market share of light trucks.  In 2005, the market share for light trucks was 53 percent, a five-fold increase since 1979. 

The resulting fuel inefficiency has cost consumers, who will pay an average of $2,450 on gas in 2007 (while the average household with children will pay $3,180), according to a new analysis by the congressional Joint Economic Committee.  The JEC reports that families with children could expect to save $3,500 over five years in gas (and more, if gas prices continue to rise) if the federal fuel economy standard were raised to 35 miles per gallon. 

A 35 mpg CAFE standard would be an almost 30 percent improvement in fleet fuel economy today, but the original CAFE program demanded that fuel economy nearly double — and the automakers rose to the challenge.

The stagnation in fuel economy standards has slowed progress.  Instead of continuously pushing for higher fuel economy throughout the last two decades, the auto manufacturers have channeled their innovation energies into increased performance and luxury add-ons.  In fact, current batteries have the capacity to make most vehicles light hybrids, but instead the battery power is used by most companies for extra-powerful stereos, lighted cupholders, air-conditioned glove boxes, televisions, and other multimedia frivolities.

Just as consumers cannot afford any more delay, the U.S. automakers cannot survive unless they finally get serious about fuel economy.  Under the Senate bill and the president’s own proposal, NHTSA would be given the authority to strive for a target lower than even 35 miles per gallon.  Unless there is a firm requirement for a locked-in increase in CAFE, US auto manufacturers will be left in the dust of foreign manufacturers that are forced to innovate under the rules recently set in Japan calling for 40 mpg by 2015, and the European Union’s standards which for 2002 were 37.2 mpg.