54.5-mpg rules expected to stick

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

New York — A growing number of foreign automakers believes U.S. regulators won’t soften the planned 54.5-mpg fleet-wide average by 2025, and that could make it tougher for truck-heavy U.S. automakers to challenge the requirements.

U.S. fuel efficiency standards will nearly double between 2012 and 2025. Automakers agreed to the dramatic hike in the requirements in 2011 — but only after the Obama administration agreed to a “midterm review” to ensure that the final four years of the tightened standards are achievable. They also face separate requirements to make a rising number of zero-emission vehicles in California and other states, along with tightening rules in Europe and Asia.

At the New York International Auto Show last week, foreign automakers said they expect the rules to remain — if not get tougher — after the midterm review by the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Automakers are plunging ahead with plans for massive increases in electric vehicles, turbocharged engines, lighter-weight vehicles and other technological improvements.

Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn told reporters at the show that he expects government emissions requirements for automakers are only going to get tougher: “If it changes, in my opinion it is going to get tougher. I’m not expecting it to become easier.”

BMW North America chief Ludwig Willisch said in a separate interview he wants no softening of the mileage requirements, even as gas prices have remained low: “There’s a clear plan that everybody has to adhere to, and then we are on safe grounds. We would very much appreciate if we would not have a change in requirements.”

And Audi of America CEO Scott Keogh said that “without a doubt we are not planning on” the numbers being lowered: “We are planning all of our efforts to meet these requirements and make it happen.”

The Obama administration estimated in 2012 that the regulations would cost the industry $200 billion to meet over a decade-plus, but said the fuel savings would far exceed the costs. Since then, oil prices have fallen sharply — and automakers are worried consumers won’t buy enough fuel-efficient vehicles to meet the requirements. But many see little choice than to assume the current numbers will remain in effect.

Requirements a concern

U.S. automakers and Toyota Motor Corp. have expressed concerns.

Ford Motor CEO Mark Fields said in January, “To meet those requirements it is going to be very important for consumers to adopt the new technologies, the electrified vehicles, etc., and that is an important part of meeting the country’s goals. What we’re seeing right now is they are not adopting them to the levels anywhere near that we expected.

“So that is why we are very looking forward to the midterm review,” he continued. “We want to make sure we had a midterm review to look at the feasibility of the goals, cost to the consumer, impact on jobs, etc.”

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne said in January that the 54.5 mpg target date could move past 2025. He asked if was “realistic” to hit that number by then.

And Toyota Motor North America CEO Jim Lentz said in a recent interview he thinks the industry will be able to meet passenger-car fuel economy requirements through 2025, but said the light-truck numbers will be more difficult to achieve — and that those requirements may have to be revisited. Cars will have to average between 55.3 and 56.2 mpg by 2025, depending on their size, while light trucks will have to average between 39.3 and 40.3 mpg.

The bigger vehicles are what customers are demanding now, in part because of lower gas prices, Lentz said: “We either have to deny what customers want, or understand that if assumptions have changed, do we really need to take a hard look at what the standards are?”

EPA ready for review

Christopher Grundler, the director of the EPA’s Transportation and Air Quality office, said the agency has been preparing for the midterm review for 18 months.

In June 2016 it will publish a technical assessment report along with California. Grundler said the report will not make any conclusions on the feasibility of the final rules: “This is just, ‘This is what we thought in 2012. This is what we think now.’ ” The agencies will then accept public comments and hold hearings.

The final decision on the outcome of the midterm review must be made by April 2018 — almost certainly by President Barack Obama’s successor. “We’re obviously expecting a lot of interest in this,” Grundler said.

A major auto trade group sees the midterm review as a “reality check.” The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group representing Detroit’s Big Three automakers, Toyota, Volkswagen, Daimler and others, noted the auto industry is offering a record number of very fuel-efficient vehicles.

“Automakers have stepped up and given consumers more choice than ever before in highly fuel-efficient vehicles. There are more than 480 vehicles that achieve high mileage (30-plus mpg highway),” alliance spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist said Tuesday.

“Given the extremely long 15-year lead time for the standards, the government set a mid-term review in 2017 as a reality check for regulatory assumptions,” she said. “One of the assumptions was that the price of gas would be much higher than today, and that affects what consumers buy. Sales of our most fuel-efficient vehicles go up and down with the price of gasoline. A mid-term reality check is a good idea, especially since our compliance is based on what consumers buy, not what we offer for sale.”

Reuss: Innovation ongoing

Mark Reuss, head of GM’s global product development, said gas prices will rise again and GM is innovating with hybrid systems, electrification and lightweight aluminum to meet regulatory and consumer requirements.

“The electrification piece, we’re in it for the long haul, but it’s not the only thing we’re into,” he said during an interview last week at the New York show. “If you’ve got a car that’s heavy and you put electrification in, then all you’ve done is add cost to a heavy car.”

Reuss said cars such as the upcoming 2016 Chevrolet Camaro, 2016 Cadillac CT6 and 2016 Chevrolet Malibu are “hundreds of pounds less than cars that are smaller, in segment, that are on the road today.”

“Those are quantum leaps in efficiency that we know no matter what the gas prices are, that’s high value,” he said. “We’ve got to meet the regulatory environment. But we know people aren’t going to go and just pay a bunch of money for us to beat the regulatory (rules). That’s not going to happen. So we’ve got to be really clever.”

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which has purchased credits from Tesla Motors Inc. to meet federal greenhouse gas emissions requirements, is moving ahead with a plug-in minivan to prepare for the future.

“The federal government will mandate in no uncertain terms what you will and will not build, or you will not sell cars in this country,” Chrysler brand chief Al Gardner said in an interview. “There are multiple reasons why you do, it but the number one reason is you have no choice. We’ve got to figure it out and hurry up and get on with it.”


Staff Writer Melissa Burden contributed.