In 15 years, a new car that gets less than 50 miles per gallon could be considered a gas-guzzler–if new fuel economy regulations President Obama plans to announce tomorrow stick. Automakers have agreed to support the new standards, which would U.S. vehicles to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Current standards require an average fuel economy of 31.4 miles per gallon by 2016.
“If upheld, the plan would lead to the biggest gains in fuel economy since government began setting mileage regulations in the 1970s and could lead to substantial changes to the cars and trucks most Americans drive,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
The impact of the fuel economy standards will depend on the details of the regulations. Previous fuel economy regulations have made exceptions for light trucks and SUVs, which helped lead to a boom in sales of these vehicles, cancelling out much of the reduction in fuel consumption provided by more efficient cars.
So far, it looks like that trucks will again receive special treatment. According to the Washington Post,
The White House originally pushed for a 56.2-mpg standard, but automakers demanded a carve-out for pickup trucks, which continue to rank among their top annual sellers. That provision lowered the average fuel efficiency gains to 54.5 mpg.
“…Until the White House provides us the full details, we are not in position to assess whether this is a strong proposal or whether there are any significant flaws,” said Roland Hwang, transportation program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “From what we’ve read, there are certainly aspects that are encouraging but there are potential loopholes which could be troubling. Now it appears there is an agreement, it’s time for the auto industry to work in good faith to not exploit the loopholes that threaten to undermine the consumer and pollution benefits.”
One European automaker executive quoted by the Wall Street Journal suggest the rules may lead to the same problems seen in the past. “It’s clearly inequitable and favors manufacturers of full size trucks,” the executive said. “It could have an adverse effect on real world [gasoline] consumption by driving consumers to trucks.”
One provision could lead to the standards being reduced before 2025. According to the Wall Street Journal: “In a key concession to auto makers, the White House also agreed to review the rules part way through the implementation cycle to determine if they are overly harsh or lenient given fuel prices, consumer behavior and technological advancements.”
Details about how fuel economy can be assessed can influence what technologies will be adopted. In some standard driving tests, benefits of certain technologies don’t show up.
The Washington Post reports that changes will be made to account for potential fuel savings from solar cells and thermoelectric devices, which supply electricity for running auxiliary systems and have an indirect effect on fuel consumption.
The Post didn’t provide details about why the benefits of such systems aren’t seen in current tests, but here’s one guess: A solar cells might run fans that keep a car cool while it’s parked. That would reduce air conditioning demand, and improve fuel economy, but that savings wouldn’t necessarily be measured in test drives.