The Future is Now: 39 Models Meet Tomorrow’s Fuel Economy Requirements Today

October 11, 2011 | 4:11 pm
Jim Kliesch
Former contributor

A number of pieces in the media, including a recent column by long-time Automotive News number-cruncher John K. Teahen Jr., have wrongly claimed that the upcoming 2017-2025 vehicle standards will force consumers into small cars. The argument goes something like this: 35.5 mpg-equivalent in 2016 and 54.5 in 2025 are so high that only compact cars will be able to meet the standard. This is sometimes supported by the claim that very few, if any, car or truck models today even meet the standards.

There’s only one problem: Thirty-nine of them do.

You read that right. Thirty-nine different models on the showroom floor right now are available in a version that already meets its 2017 target fuel economy. And that’s a conservative estimate. If you account for a flexibility mechanism that allows companies to earn credit for improving their vehicles’ air conditioning systems, the number in question could sit closer to 50. (Moreover, about two dozen of those would already meet the 2020 standard.)

How is that possible? Well, most of this is rooted in a misunderstanding of how vehicle greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards work. When revamped in 2007, one of the policy’s key design changes was an “attribute-based system” that allows a company focused on large vehicles to be held to a weaker standard than a company focused on smaller vehicles.

Under the attribute-based system, each vehicle is assigned a “target” mpg (or gram-per-mile level) based on its size and vehicle class. This target reflects what the vehicle should achieve in order to pull its own weight in meeting the company average. As shown in the example below, larger vehicles have weaker targets, and smaller vehicles have more stringent targets. A company’s corporate requirement is simply the sales-weighted average of its products’ targets.

In other words, companies don’t focus on the “35.5” or “54.5” that garners the headlines. They focus on targets. And as long as the products they make meet their respective targets, they’ve got nothing to worry about.

Many models are already ahead of the game

So which models have versions that already meet the 2017 targets? High profile wheels like the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf are there, of course. As are hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion Hybrid. And popular conventional cars like the Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Chevy Cruze, and Ford Focus. Minivans like the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna are also there, along with compact pickups like the Ford Ranger and Toyota Tacoma. And full-size pickups like the Chevy Silverado Hybrid and GMC Sierra Hybrid. Along with small SUVs like the Ford Escape Hybrid and GMC Terrain, and luxury sedans like the Buick LaCrosse eAssist and Infiniti M35h. The list goes on…

The point is, while the standards don’t take effect for another 5 years, the industry is already there. And not just in a handful of models. The conventional and hybrid fuel-saving, emissions-reducing technology in question is available and already being used in a range of vehicles, from the smallest cars to the biggest trucks. The upcoming standards won’t change that. They’ll just make the technology more prevalent.

(This assessment could not have been done without the painstaking work of UCS Clean Vehicles intern Jennah Bedrosian, who meticulously hunted down vehicle footprint data. Thank you Jennah!)