Fuel Economy Reaches Highest Level Ever as Automakers Continue to Beat EPA Regulations

, senior vehicles analyst | November 2, 2016, 12:48 pm EST
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EPA released its annual reports on the fuel economy of new vehicles and how well automakers are complying with regulations—and yet again, new vehicles sold are more efficient than they’ve ever been, while automakers continue to exceed the federal standards.

Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said that EPA needs to weaken or delay implementation of fuel economy standards that are working to bring consumers more efficient vehicles…and he is not alone.

Federal fuel efficiency standards have helped put the most efficient vehicles ever into consumers’ hands, but Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is still pushing EPA to weaken or delay implementation of fuel economy standards…and he is not alone.

These reports aren’t really news—this is the same thing we have observed year after year since these standards went into place, and it should be in no way surprising.  Despite all their griping, manufacturers are doing well, exceeding standards even while selling near-record volumes of vehicles, including an increasing share of the SUVs that are some of their most profitable.

What is different about this year, however, is that we are in the middle of a mid-term evaluation of these standards, standards which automakers are trying to weaken, even while some manufacturers are actually reducing efficient options for consumers.  It’s clear from these reports, however, that the standards are working as intended and manufacturers have plenty of technologies left at their disposal to continue to meet future standards.

SUVs are not just more popular than ever—they’re more efficient

2015 saw a surge in SUV marketshare, but this was also accompanied by significant improvements in efficiency, buoyed by a bevy of new, smaller crossovers.  This is helping to keep the “trucks” that automakers love to sell ahead of the standards.  In fact, SUVs today are nearing the same levels of efficiency that cars had 10-15 years ago, a feat that would not have occurred without these regulations.

It isn’t just SUVs that are improving, of course—nearly every class of vehicle saw its highest achieved fuel economy ever.  By pushing manufacturers to deploy efficient technologies across all vehicles, these regulations are helping to ensure more efficient consumer choices in every vehicle class.

A variety of technology pathways are helping to achieve standards

A common gripe that we hear about regulations is that manufacturers will be forced to adopt technology X Y or Z, but these standards were designed to be flexible, providing manufacturers choices it can tailor to its own customers and vehicle profiles to improve the availability of efficient options for consumers while maintaining wide ranging options in size, make, luxury, performance, etc.  This is possible because there are a plethora of technology choices for manufacturers that are nowhere near being fully deployed.

Manufacturers have a broad array of technologies at their disposal to continue to use conventional, gasoline-powered vehicles to meet future standards. From gasoline direct-injection (GDI) to advanced transmissions, there are a number of technology pathways for manufacturers, all of which can lead to further reductions in fuel use—the six highlighted here are merely a subset that omits aerodynamic improvements, weight reduction, Atkinson-cycle engines, variable-compression-ratio engines, and much more.

Manufacturers have a broad array of technologies at their disposal to continue to use conventional, gasoline-powered vehicles to meet future standards. From gasoline direct-injection (GDI) to advanced transmissions, there are a number of technology pathways for manufacturers, all of which can lead to further reductions in fuel use—the six highlighted here are merely a subset that omits aerodynamic improvements, weight reduction, Atkinson-cycle engines, variable-compression-ratio engines, and much more.

Case in point: Mazda is among the best-performing automakers and continues to outpace the standards by deploying efficient direct-injection engines across the board, but they have plenty of room to grow when it comes to transmission efficiency or stop-start technology.  On the other hand, Nissan has exploited tremendous improvements in continuously variable transmissions to ensure its cars and trucks are well ahead of the standards, but it has yet to significantly deploy direct-injection or turbocharging to its engines.

In addition to the technologies highlighted by the EPA in the Trends report, the technical assessment report put out this summer noted a number of additional technologies like the use of lightweight materials to reduce weight of vehicles, utilization of advanced valve controls to run the engine in a more thermodynamically efficient cycle like Atkinson- and Miller-cycle engines, and the reduction of “road load” by improving aerodynamics and reducing the rolling resistance of tires.  Beyond conventional technologies, there are also the more than 500,000 electric vehicles sold to-date that are helping manufacturers exceed the standards—while they are not necessary to achieve 2025, they are certainly helping us to meet our oil and climate goals and will become a bigger and bigger part of the new vehicle market as we aim for a more sustainable transportation future.

Working as intended—why slow down?

Customers are buying the most efficient cars and trucks ever in near-record volumes—that is exactly the type of progress we need to accelerate to meet our oil reduction and climate targets, and the light-duty vehicle standards remain the best opportunity to make this happen.

With manufacturers overachieving each and every year of the standards to-date and plenty of technology opportunities on the horizon, it’s tough to imagine why the agencies would give into industry pressure to weaken the standards—reports like this chock full of good news for the auto industry and showing the positive impacts of the regulations will continue to provide the ammunition to strengthen these targets out to 2025 and beyond.

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