DETROIT - Happy Earth Day! The National Highway Traffic Administration's gift to automakers Tuesday is a new standard that sets Corporate Average Fuel Economy at 31.6 mpg by 2015. It's an interim step to the 35-mpg federal standard by 2020 that Congress approved late last year. The automakers have anticipated, though not eagerly, this interim standard, which sets car CAFE at 35.7 mpg and truck CAFE at 28.6 mpg by '15. Many new product projects have been put on hold. Early this year, General Motors announced it had cancelled its $3-billion Ultra V-8 program, a replacement for Cadillac's Northstar V-8.
"This proposal is historically ambitious, yet achievable. It will help us all breathe a little easier by reducing tailpipe emissions, cutting fuel consumption, and making driving a little more affordable," U.S. transportation secretary Mary E. Peters said, in announcing the new standards in Washington, D.C. She arrived at the press conference via Saturn Aura hybrid
The rule process allows public comment after it is published in the Federal Record -- or you can read all 417 pages at nhtsa.gov -- and if there are no objections, it can become federal rule. Don't expect any lack of objections. What the NHTSA rule does that automakers won't like is force fuel economy gains -- nearly 4.6 percent per year -- early within the 12-year period leading to the 35-mpg rule. Department of Transportation (DOT) officials say the rule does not assume any significant sales of plug-in hybrid cars by the 2015 model year, which flies in the face of General Motors' plans, and so NHTSA is asking for an update on automakers' progress on plug-ins. It also assumes diesel power will make up 4 percent of the car fleet and 10 percent of the light truck fleet in seven years.
Here's how the interim CAFE standards work out for model years 2011 to '15.
MY2011: 31.2 mpg/285 g/mile CO2 tailpipe emissions
MY2012: 32.8 mpg/271 g/mi
MY2013: 34.0 mpg/261 g/mi
MY2014: 34.8 mpg/255 g/mi
MY2015: 35.7 mpg/249 g/mi
MY2011: 25.0 mpg/355 g/mi
MY2012: 26.4 mpg/337 g/mi
MY2013: 27.8 mpg/320 g/mi
MY2014: 28.2 mpg/315 g/mi
MY2015: 28.6 mpg/310 g/mi
For the 2007 model year, cars sold in the U.S. averaged 31.3 mpg and light trucks averaged 23.1 mpg. Keep in mind that these numbers reflect a complex equation that takes a car or truck's "footprint" into account. Based on this equation, DOT says, Porsche will have to average 41.3 mpg by 2015 without buying another manufacturer's credits, or paying a gas guzzler tax (unless it can by then count the fuel economy of every Volkswagen AG model sold in the U.S.), whereas newly independent Jaguar/Land Rover will have a lower number to achieve for cars, because Jaguars make a larger "footprint."
This is to prevent an automaker from simply switching to small cars. Even Honda and Volkswagen, traditionally the automakers with the highest fleet averages, will have to show technology improvements to get better fuel mileage from Fits and Golfs. Because of their mix of vehicles, Ford Motor Company will have to reach higher numbers than Toyota/Lexus/Scion. Those numbers (which still assume Jaguar/LR as part of FoMoCo):
MY 2011: 31.0 mpg
MY 2012: 32.7 mpg
MY 2013: 33.7 mpg
MY 2014: 34.5 mpg
MY 2015: 35.5 mpg
MY 2011: 30.1 mpg
MY 2012: 31.5 mpg
MY 2013: 32.7 mpg
MY 2014: 33.6 mpg
MY 2015: 34.6 mpg
Those are eye-opening numbers, because it means, on the face of it, that the average Toyota has a bigger "footprint" than the average Ford.
The industry has resisted CAFE increases, especially during the cheap gas-big SUV era of the late '90s and early '00s, and now it looks like the bill has come due. The current standard for cars, 27.5 mpg, goes back to 1990 and the one for trucks, 22.2 mpg, was set in 1992. More recent tax laws gave small business owners a writeoff if they purchased trucks and SUVs like the Hummer H2 too heavy for Environmental Protection Agency to be subject to mpg measurements. While those days appear to be over, NHTSA's arcane "footprint" formula doesn't outlaw big cars; it requires that automakers find a way (likely at high costs) to build large cars with significantly better fuel economy. We'll still see traditional Cadillacs, but probably not traditional Cadillac V-8s.
The unintended consequence is that it could force most Americans into smaller cars, because that's all they will be able to afford.