New Gas Mileage Standards Represent Biggest MPG Gain in 30 Years

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If finalized, the new vehicle requirements would mark the first national standard placed on heat-trapping emissions from tailpipes.

New proposed vehicle standards announced by the Obama administration today represent the largest increase in fuel economy in three decades, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The new standards, which were released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), would boost the fleetwide fuel economy of new vehicles sold in the United States to 34.1 miles per gallon by model year 2016. The standards also would set the first national tailpipe heat-trapping emissions standard for vehicles at 250 grams per mile — nearly 30 percent less than the emissions produced by today’s average new vehicle.

Following a 60-day public comment period, EPA and DOT are required to finalize the standards by March 31, 2010.

“You have to go back to the days of disco to see a fuel economy improvement like this,” says Jim Kliesch, a senior engineer in the UCS Clean Vehicles Program. “If finalized, these proposed standards will be the biggest increase in fuel economy in more than 30 years. That’s good news for the environment, consumers’ wallets and our nation’s energy security.”

UCS calculates that the proposed standards would:

  • Reduce U.S. oil consumption by about 1.3 million barrels per day by 2020, nearly as much as we currently import from Saudi Arabia.
  • Cut global warming emissions by 217 million metric tons in 2020, the equivalent of taking nearly 32 million of today’s cars and light trucks off the road that year.
  • Save drivers $26 billion in 2020 based on a gas price of $2.25 per gallon, even after they pay the cost of vehicle technology improvements. (If gas prices spike to $4 a gallon again, the new standards would save drivers $60 billion in 2020.)

Patricia Monahan, director of UCS’s California office, notes that the agreement preserves California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to continue setting the nation’s strongest air pollution standards for vehicles.

“California and other states laid the groundwork for federal action,” Monahan says. “Instead of setting up roadblocks, President Obama is joining forces with states to combat global warming.”

While the proposal would set strong new standards, it could create new loopholes that would undermine the effectiveness of the program, UCS experts caution. For instance, the proposal includes flexibility mechanisms that the industry has used in the past to avoid meeting projected standards. Meanwhile, another provision could underestimate the heat-trapping emissions produced by certain vehicle technologies, including “zero-emission” vehicle technologies such as plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. The proposed rules, for example, do not count heat-trapping emissions associated with generating electricity to charge those vehicles.

“Automakers have a history of relying on loopholes instead of better technology,” says Brendan Bell, a federal policy analyst in UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program. “The technology exists today to safely boost fuel economy and reduce emissions. It’s time to take that technology and deploy it across the fleet.”

Finally, the new standards use an attribute-based system that creates different fuel economy requirements for vehicles based on their size. Unfortunately, DOT continues to utilize a flawed safety analysis based on outdated assumptions that also ignores the safety benefits of an attribute-based system. Scientific and industry research indicates that vehicle size and design — not weight — are the most relevant attributes associated with improved safety. However, the flawed analysis focuses on weight as the most significant safety factor. Additionally, the new attribute-based standards require smaller vehicles to meet more stringent standards, encouraging manufacturers to utilize efficient technologies, including lighter materials, while holding vehicle size constant — a strategy for meeting the standards that actually enhances safety.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., and has offices in Berkeley, Calif., Chicago and Washington, D.C.
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