Electric car viability debated amid Trump mpg review

Keith Laing

Washington — Lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives debated Tuesday whether there is enough demand for electric cars to help automakers meet ambitious gas-mileage rules that require them to produce fleets that average more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

The mileage rules, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and greenhouse gas emission standards, began taking effect with the 2017 model year. They call for ramping up from the current fleet-wide average of about 35 miles per gallon for cars and trucks to an eventual goal of between 50 and 52.6 miles per gallon by 2025. The goal was revised down from an initial target of 54.5 miles per gallon.

The mileage rules were put in place in 2012 by former President Barack Obama’s administration, which argued that the lofty target was achievable and popular with drivers who were weary with gas prices that topped $4 per gallon at the time. Automakers have since argued that the rules are too stringent, and drivers have demonstrated in recent years that they are less interested in fuel-efficient cars and electric vehicles with gas prices that are now around $2.50.

The mileage rules that cover the model years between 2021 and 2025 are currently under review by President Donald Trump’s administration. Debate over the rules in a House Energy and Commerce hearing turned to the popularity of electric cars and their impact on the overall fuel performance of automakers’ fleets — and whether car companies are building enough of them.

“Was it not assumed there would be a far higher penetration in the market of electric vehicles?” asked U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn.

“People keep making this comment that the companies aren’t building EVs, but is it not a fact that the customer is not buying EVs,” she continued. “They don’t believe that there is an infrastructure in place, and even the 13 states that have said mandates that should be putting them into their fleet are not buying them.”

Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst of Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Vehicles Program, countered that the mileage rules were not initially intended to be contingent on driver acceptance of electric cars.

“There was little penetration of electrification assumed and 4.5 percent in California right now,” he said, referring to that state’s percentage of electric car adoption, which is higher than the national average.

Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for major automakers, interjected with a reference to the much lower national electric car adoption rate: “But a half a point nationwide,” he said.

Automakers sold 542,000 electric cars in 2016, according to a study conducted by the California-based electric vehicle infrastructure company known as ChargePoint. That was up from 408,000 in 2015 and just 73,000 in 2012.

John Bozzella, president and CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, which represents foreign-based car manufacturers, agreed that the viability of the future gas mileage rules will likely hinge on the number of electric cars that automakers are able to sell.

“There is not a single gasoline-powered engine that meets those standards today,” he said. “So I think we should be honest and straight-forward about the types of technology pathways we’re going to see (moving) forward: more electrification, more hybrids. Really, this is about not only making sure we get the assumptions right for innovators and investors, but also that the customer recognizes what the marketplace will look like and are prepared.”

Cooke compared automakers resistance to the gas mileage rules to their opposition to federal mandates on auto safety. “When you look at testimony in front of House committees over the past 35 to 40 years, this is par for the course,” he said. “Automakers routinely say ‘We can’t possibly hit that target’ and they are still standing.”

Bainwol rejected the notion that automakers are opposed to increasing fuel efficiency.

“The premise that we’re going to halt progress is false,” he said. “The only question here is the degree of the slope. And we want the slope of progress to be one that’s consistent with selling cars and encourage the fleet turnover.”

When the mileage rules were first enacted, automakers lobbied for a mid-point review to ensure that the mileage rules were still feasible for the last four model years that are included in the mandate. That review was expanded to include the 2021 model earlier this year by the Trump administration.

The Obama administration rushed to finalize the stringent fuel economy rules ahead of schedule after Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 presidential in the former president’s finalize days in office, in a decision that was later overturned by Trump. Automakers started lobbying the new president to reverse the Obama administration’s decision before he took office.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, defended the review against charges that it is a thinly veiled attempt to stop progress toward reducing pollution from cars.

“When we worked with industry and the administration on establishing the time frame for mileage, we put in the provision that in 2018, a few years down the road, that there would be a look back,” Upton said. “Can the industry actually make these changes at what hopefully what would be a reasonable price for consumers?”

Upton continued: “I wouldn’t say it was set in to halt the progress. It was to actually measure the science, the efficiencies and the new vehicles as to whether they would meet those.”

The mileage increase as it stands now requires an average of over 35 miles per gallon for 2017 models. The mileage rules call for automakers to achieve a fleetwide average mileage rate of more than 36 miles per gallon for cars and trucks in 2018. The standard then increases to more than 37 miles per gallon in 2019 and nearly 39 miles per gallon in 2020.

Under the current rules, automakers face fines of $5.50 for each one-tenth of a mile-per-gallon their average fuel economy falls short of the standard for a model year, multiplied by the total volume of vehicles sold. Automakers are allowed to purchase credits from other auto companies that have come in under the mileage requirements to cover pollution deficits.


(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing