The Latest From The EPA: Car Manufacturers Are Exceeding Expectations

March 26, 2015
Dave Cooke
Senior Vehicles Analyst

Today, the EPA put out its latest “scorecard” for the automakers, answering the question of how well each manufacturer is performing compared to the greenhouse gas emissions standards for light-duty vehicles. The indication is again a cautious optimism, showing that manufacturers continue to exceed the standards, reducing emissions at a rate faster than projected. This is good news for the climate, for consumers at the pump, and for staying on the path to a Half the Oil future.

Good news for the climate

Average tailpipe emissions continue to decrease

The largest contributor to global warming emissions from transportation comes from the combustion of gasoline for passenger vehicles, making it critical that tailpipe emissions from these vehicles continue to decrease. Year-over-year, the EPA report shows a drop in tailpipe emissions of about 3 percent, on average, between 2012 and 2013.

Improvements to air conditioning are coming even faster than the agencies predicted

While combustion may provide the biggest contribution to global warming emissions from transportation, one of the key elements that sets the EPA’s standards for cars and trucks apart from the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards set by the Department of Transportation is that the EPA’s standards considers all global warming contributions from the vehicle, including from the air conditioning system. The most common coolant in vehicles, HFC-134a, has a global-warming potential (GWP) 1300 times that of carbon dioxide, so even small leaks can contribute significantly to global warming emissions. Luckily, it is short-lived, so by the EPA encouraging better sealing to reduce leaks and the phase-in of lower-GWP refrigerants like HFO-1234yf, we can quickly reduce some of the impact passenger vehicles have on global warming. Manufacturers are reducing the global warming emissions from the air-conditioning systems of new vehicles even faster than the agencies thought they would.

Good news for consumers

On average, vehicles are about 1 mpg ahead of where they need to be, or about one full year ahead of the regulatory timetable

This means that 2013 vehicles are producing 9% fewer GHG emissions than 2010 vehicles, and saving their owners about $100 per year at today’s gas prices—nearly $17 billion saved over the lifetimes of these vehicles. And this is all happening while cars are increasing the adoption of safety technologies and increasing the amount of “high-tech” interior features while prices remain essentially flat relative to inflation. Today’s cars are ahead of the curve, providing consumers with more features at reduced operating costs.

2013 Nissan Sentra

According to the latest compliance report, Nissan saw the largest improvement of any manufacturer in meeting its regulatory obligations. This is largely due to improvements to vastly improved versions of its popular Altima and Sentra (pictured above) sedans as well as a rapid increase in sales of its LEAF battery-electric vehicle between the 2012 and 2013 model years.

Good news for 2025 and beyond

All major manufacturers, representing more than 99% of vehicle sales, are in compliance over the model years covered by the program to-date.

Over the next couple years, the agencies are going to evaluate the standards for the 2022-2025 model years to look at whether the regulations need tweaking. What this latest report continues to show is that manufacturers are having no trouble meeting the standard and are well-prepared to meet future standards.

And we are already seeing how some manufacturers are seeing their technology investments pay off. Nissan made the biggest gains between 2012 and 2013, particularly in the performance of its car fleet, thanks largely to redesigned versions of its popular Altima (from 27mpg up to 31mpg) and Sentra (from 30mpg up to 34mpg) sedans. They were also helped by a nearly three-fold increase in Nissan LEAF sales, which contributed over 1 million metric tons of emissions credits in 2013.

Of course, there is still plenty of room for improvement—many of the technologies identified in the EPA’s Fuel Economy Trends Report and our Automaker Rankings have only just started to make in-roads in the market. New engine platforms, new plug-in vehicles, and other improvements continue to be debuted with each passing month. Companies are investing for the long haul and are only just now starting to see some of the fruits of these investments.

The standards are working as intended

As vehicle standards prompt manufacturers to invest in efficiency standards, the EPA’s latest scorecard shows that they are more than up to the challenge. The 2013 vehicles continue to reduce emissions from the fleet and save consumers money at the pump. And we here at UCS look forward to continued improvements year-over-year, out to 2025 and beyond.

But of course, despite all of this evidence showing how well manufacturers are poised for the future, that doesn’t stop the naysayers, and we will have to continually remind them how well the industry is positioned for the future. In a follow-up blog, I’ll explain why even those companies whose fleets are behind this year are still well-positioned to meet the standards of the future.

We know the plans for a cleaner transportation future are in place—it’s now time to keep the accelerator pressed to move us forward. These standards are a critical step towards our Half the Oil plan—it’s good to see that manufacturers are setting us on the path to get there.

For more coverage, see last year’s blog on the EPA standards, and this blog on how automakers are planning to meet the standards.