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Monday, December 23, 2013
Why are the Big Three resisting new mileage and emissions standards?
It is clear the new standards for mileage and emissions are working, and more can easily be done.
By Dan Becker and James Gerstenzang, December 19, 2013
In 2012, fleetwide gas mileage in the U.S. improved 5%. Above, exhaust flows out of a tailpipe in Florida.
One year after automakers began building cars to meet tough new
mileage and emissions requirements, it is clear the new standards are
working. An in-depth assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency
found that manufacturers are on track to deliver a fleet by 2025 that
will cut in half the global-warming pollution of cars and save Americans
billions of dollars at the pump.
The EPA reported Thursday
that the 2012 fleet's mileage increased 1.2 miles per gallon, a roughly
5% jump. That improvement alone will save purchasers of 2012 cars about
$1,600 at the pump over the life of a vehicle. And because car engines
turn each gallon of gasoline into 25 pounds of carbon dioxide, the
improvement will also keep about 4 tons of CO2 per car out of the
atmosphere, the EPA estimates.
So why is the auto industry still resisting the new standards?
Virtually all the 2012 improvement came from cars. Automakers failed
to shrink SUVs, minivans or pickups or raise their mileage. Overweight
and cheaper to build because they lack much of the best technology,
trucks achieve worse mileage than cars and spit out more pollution, and
the auto companies seem reluctant to change that.
And, once again, American automakers delivered poorer gains in fuel
economy than their competitors abroad. The best-performing automakers
were Mazda, Honda and Toyota. Nearly all manufacturers improved their
gas mileage, but GM and Chrysler improved less than the others and so
fell further behind. Ford gained more than its domestic rivals, but its
fleetwide fuel economy, like that of its Detroit competitors, is still
below the industry average.
Before agreeing to the 13-year federal program, carmakers lobbied
successfully to have the government evaluate the program near the
midpoint. They called this midterm review their "exit ramp," betraying a
hope they might use it to weaken the standards before they are fully
implemented. Privately, a top industry advisor has warned that Detroit's
Big Three are preparing for "a bloody fight" to weaken the federal
The U.S. auto industry is also balking at standards set by California, the leader among states in fighting global warming.
Under California's requirements, adopted under a waiver from the EPA,
about 15% of the fleet sold here in 2025 will have to produce no
tailpipe pollution. Seven other states have adopted the California
standard, which is intended to increase sales of plug-in electric
vehicles and cars powered by fuel cells or other nonpolluting systems.
But the Automotive News reports that industry officials continue to
fight the plan for zero-emission vehicles behind the scenes.
The industry has also begun lobbying to accelerate California's
midterm review, perhaps hoping for a potential exit ramp just as the new
rules are taking hold.
The companies continue to make money under the new rules, and they're
doing so while more than meeting government mandates. According to the
EPA, 28% of this year's cars aren't just meeting current standards, they
are hitting the mark for 2016 vehicles.
Meeting higher emissions standards is a matter of auto mechanics, not
rocket science. The data show that companies are achieving the early
targets even though they've only just begun to deploy their best
technology. Three-quarters of 2012's cars and light trucks operated with
six gears or more, helping deliver power to the wheels more
efficiently. But only 23% of 2012 vehicles employed direct fuel
injection, which saves gas by ensuring more complete combustion.
Using gas-saving, high-strength, lightweight materials, automakers
have shaved 150 pounds from the average vehicle. But according to
Clarence M. Ditlow III, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety
— with which our Safe Climate Campaign is affiliated — they should be
able to cut at least twice that with no impact on safety.
The EPA's extensive report makes clear that setting ambitious
requirements matters. From 1989 to 2007, automakers successfully
resisted standards that would mandate significant improvements. But
without a government mandate, auto companies continued to churn out
antiquated technology and focused on SUVs and other trucks rather than
building more efficient cars. Only when the government toughened
standards did fuel economy go up and emissions fall.
The auto companies should be celebrating instead of kvetching. They
are delivering profits to shareholders and cleaner cars to the public.