Editorial: Lighten fuel standards in 2017 review

The Detroit News

The fuel standards automakers are supposed to meet by 2025 are likely unattainable, according to a Technical Assessment Report that was recently released on the automotive industry’s progress in this area. The report’s findings were no surprise, but they underscore the need for the next administration to revisit the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for 2021 to 2025 at the official review next year.

Automakers need relief, whether in less stringent standards or delayed deadlines, from a goal that technical costs and consumer demands will make impossible to achieve.

Auto executives have been jockeying to revise the standards based on their observations of the industry. Though auto manufacturers have made massive improvements in fuel economy and huge advancements with electric vehicles and hybrids, they’re approaching a critical point where future improvements will be much more costly and fuel gains more difficult to achieve.

Improvements to pure gasoline engines won’t be enough to meet the fleet standard — currently at 54.5 mpg in nine years. Compliance will require more hybrids, which are more expensive to make, and which consumers aren’t buying in sufficient numbers.

In the first six months of this year, sales of the Toyota Prius — considered the gold standard of hybrid vehicles — were down 27 percent over last year. And in 2015, the average fuel economy of vehicles sold fell 0.1 mpg from 2014, according to a study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Gasoline prices remain comparatively low, and the oil glut will keep them that way for a while. That renders inaccurate the government’s projections in 2012 that increasing CAFE standards would save motorists as much as $5,700 over a vehicle’s life, and justify the $1,800 higher sticker price caused by the mandates. The assumption that gasoline will be at $4 a gallon in 2025 is unreliable.

Automakers now say the technology cost will exceed the $1,800 estimate. Additionally, the fuel standards were based on projections that almost two-thirds of vehicles on the road would be cars, and just one-third would consist of SUVs, pickups and crossovers.

That fleet breakdown looks very different now, just four years later, with the market almost equally split between cars and SUV/ trucks. At the current mix, the fleet average will be closer to 51 mpg by 2025, according to the technical report.

Given abundant fuel supplies and emission improvements, that ought to be enough.

Regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have signaled they think automakers can still meet the demands, and would like to see them upheld.

Automakers disagree and are asking for relief in the mid-term review. The manufacturers can only manipulate consumer demand so much. They still have a marketplace to please.

The standards can’t stubbornly assume changes will happen in the market, or that more technological breakthroughs are ahead.

They should be made fluid enough to account for a changing market, the country’s petroleum supply and the limits of technology.

At this point, automakers are down to stripping more weight out of vehicles to improve fuel economy, a trade-off that risks making cars and trucks less safe.

Automakers have made huge strides in fuel economy, and will continue to do so. But they merit some relief from mandates that were put in place when their market looked vastly different.