Six months after taking office, the Trump administration began to contemplate easing future Corporate Average Fuel Economy targets. Over the past week, Bloomberg has run a few pieces on what the new CAFE mandates might look like, and how the administration could try to justify them. According to a draft proposal put together by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the most serious climbdown would lower average fleetwide fuel economy to 35.7 miles per gallon for passenger cars (but not light trucks) by 2021, instead of the current target of 46.6 mpg in 2021 set by the previous administration. That represents a 23.3-percent decrease. Note, though, that CAFE numbers don’t represent real-world driving; 50 CAFE mpg equals about 36 real-world mpg.
Per Bloomberg, traffic fatalities could be one rationale the administration could use for reducing targets — namely, that there’ll be fewer road fatalities if we have heavier vehicles, and their lower mpg numbers, on the roads. The NHTSA analysis predicts there would be 1,200 fewer traffic deaths per year from 2036 to 2045 by reducing CAFE targets by 23 percent. The potential for rising fatalities due to lighter, frugal vehicles has long been researched and debated.
Also, a 35.7-mpg standard would mean that instead of needing 61 percent of new vehicle sales to be PHEVs, only 10 percent of new vehicles would need to be plug-in hybrids. That would make cars $1,800 less expensive, but result in drivers buying 77 billion gallons more fuel.
Other scenarios study smaller concessions. Setting the standard at 42.1 mpg instead of 46.6 has been projected to save 675 lives from 2036 to 2045, cut the price of a new vehicle by $1,275, and add 49 billion gallons of gas to the national thirst compared to the current standards.
However, many researchers say the government addressed the road safety matter when it created a sliding fuel economy scale tied to a vehicle’s footprint. For instance, the mpg target for a Kia Soul in 2021 is 48.6 mpg, while the target for a BMW 7 Series is 38 mpg. A member of the National Academy of Sciences didn’t agree with the fatality rationale, saying it “does not seem consistent” with the Academy’s previous findings.
NHTSA said that on March 30 it will release a notice of proposed rulemaking on the issue of CAFE standards, perhaps from 2021 to 2026. That’s one day before the EPA decides whether to review tailpipe emissions standards for light-duty vehicles covering model years 2022-25.
Any reduction could open up a black hole of confusion and court cases. In 2009, NHTSA agreed to link its mpg standards with tailpipe emissions standards set by the EPA and, separately, the California Air Resources Board. CARB has already said it has no intention of easing its targets. A CARB spokesman told Bloomberg, “It’s clear that in order to stay competitive globally, the U.S. auto industry needs to keep pace with the rest of the world. That’s where California is moving. It is unwise for the federal government to set the clock of automotive technology back a decade.”
Automakers desperately want lower fuel economy standards, though, because consumers want crossovers and SUVs. In 2017, individual automakers spent $49 million on Washington lobbyists — the highest amount since 2008 — which doesn’t include the amount spent by automaker alliances. General Motors led the cash splash with an $8.64 million spend, singlehandedly exceeding the lobbying splurge by Nissan, Daimler, Volkswagen, Hyundai, Kia, Tata, BMW and Lucid Motors combined. Mazda played the minnow, doling out just $90,000 on direct lobbying efforts.
Get your popcorn ready for the end of March, folks.