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Ambitious new goals leave U.S. lagging behind other nations on fuel economy

University of Michigan
Vehicle fuel-efficiency is on the rise, but the U.S. lags behind others with national programs to boost fuel economy.

The headline in Tuesday’s New York Times was certainly a grabber:

Vehicle Fuel Efficiency Reaches a High, Nearing Goal for 2016.

The details: The latest figures posted in the “Eco-Driving Index,” a project at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, show that the average window-sticker mileage ratings of new cars sold each month rose to a record 24.9 miles per gallon.

Of course, the window-sticker numbers have little to do with real-life fuel economy as experienced by drivers, which is typically lower. Or with the overall fuel economy of U.S. passenger vehicles, for that matter, because it takes so long for newer, improved cars to replace older, less efficient models on the roadways.

MTRI’s figure of 24.9 mpg represents a gain of 4.8 miles per gallon over the six years that the institute has been keeping score, and makes for an impressive line chart (above) if you start the scale at about 20 mpg.

The institute puts out its monthly report with considerable footnoting as to how a large and complicated data set has been reduced to a single stat —  and virtually no interpretation of what that stat really means. Excerpts from the Times’s take on the new number:

  • The improvements reflect broad changes across the industry in the size, weight and engines in new models, as well as an increase in the number of hybrid and electric vehicles on the market.
  • The overall gains in fuel economy since 2007 have accelerated since the American automakers have recovered from the recession.
  • By the calculations of a Don Anair, a green-car expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the new results position the U.S. auto industry to hit its 2016 target for improvement under the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) program. That target is 35.5 mpg, which Anair told the Times is equivalent to a window-sticker rating of 27 mpg.
  • However, there is considerable disagreement  about whether the really significant new  CAFE target — 54.5 mpg by 2025 — is achievable. Also, whether U.S. automakers are actually doing all they can to meet the more ambitious goals they negotiated with the White House last year.
  • And, finally, whether there’s much real-world meaning in either the sticker ratings or the CAFE numbers we have been so fixed upon since the OPEC oil embargos a couple of generations ago.

All of this is familiar territory in Americans’ long-running debate over raising the fuel economy of our vehicle fleets. But the Times report got me to wondering: How are other countries doing on this problem?

As it happens, a fresh look at that question is available from the International Council on Clean Transportation, a credible and independent research outfit with offices in San Francisco, Washington, Berlin and Beijing.

Just last month, ICCT updated its “Global Comparison of Light-Duty Vehicle Fuel Economy/GHG Emissions Standards.” A PDF of the whole report is available here, or if you prefer a slideshow you can watch one here.

But three charts, really, tell the essential story of how U.S. standards and performance stack up against other countries with national programs to boost fuel economy: Canada, the European Union, Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, India and Mexico (with Indonesia and Thailand preparing to join the club).

Courtesy of ICCT

This one compares fuel economy standards among countries as if they all used the CAFE methodology, and from 2000 through 2013 — the solid lines — U.S. standards were consistently the lowest on the list except for a tie with Mexico in 2009.

Looking to the future, U.S. standards track closely with Mexico’s through 2016, the last year for which our neighbor to the south has standards on the books, and then track in lockstep with Canada —still at the bottom of the list — through 2025.

(The 49.1 mpg figure is lower than the official U.S. target of 54.5 because of fleet adjustments to compare the three countries of North America on the same set of light-duty vehicles.)

Courtesy of ICCT

 This looks at fuel economy not from the miles-per-gallon standpoint that may matter most to thrift-minded motorists and car buyers, but from a standard measure of greenhouse-gas emissions — grams of CO2 emitted per kilometer traveled.

As you’d expect, these results mirror the others in an upside-down way: U.S. emissions lead the pack through 2016, then stay on track in a tie with Canada through 2025.

Courtesy of ICCT

Finally, this chart shows in a comparative way just how heavy a lift each country faces to meet the fuel economy targets it has enacted (dark gray bars) or is considering (lighter bars).

It would seem that we have a long way to go. Which makes the incremental, year-by-year progress charted by the Michigan institute in this last table just a tad underwhelming:

University of Michigan

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 09/12/2013 - 09:35 am.

    Just a question..

    for perspective. Fuel efficiency is great. But put in to context, a truck getting 16 mpg driving a 5-mile commute each way is better than a Prius with 55 mpg and a 25 mile 2-way commute. Increasing efficiency typically leads to increased consumption. We’re not stopping building housing, freeway lane miles, exits, etc further and further out to encourage/allow this behavior. What if the efforts spent by the federal government in making incremental changes to fuel standards (which may not have their desired effect if people continue traveling more) were focused more on removing transportation funding and policies that allow the emissions in the first place? Just a thought.

  2. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 09/12/2013 - 01:22 pm.

    Beware Misuse of Jevons Paradox

    Despite it being widely debunked, for some reason some people latch onto Jevons Paradox as being some form of natural law. Luckily, it’s a testable hypothesis, so let’s see what the data indicate.

    Here is a chart comparing indexed fuel economy with fuel consumption per capita for light duty vehicles in the US from 1960 to 2011.

    If the hypothesis were true, the two lines should look roughly the same. In fact, one sees an inverse, not positive, correlation between 1960 and 1991, then mostly no change in fuel consumption per capita while MPG slowly increased from 1991 to 2011.

    Many variables have an effect on vehicle energy consumption – from income, to the price of fuel, to the health of the economy, etc. There are also hard limits on how much driving someone can and is willing to do. Also, in the US, non-fuel costs account for roughly 2/3 of total vehicle costs. Fuel accounts for about 4.4% of the average household’s after-tax income and declines in share as income increases.

    Another angle is to look at fuel consumption per vehicle of cars versus trucks. Even though the average passenger car is driven more miles per year than the average light truck, the average light truck still uses more fuel overall.


  3. Submitted by Mark Carter on 10/25/2013 - 10:22 am.

    Fuel ecconomy

    The problems are much more complex.

    I doubt the 2025 fuel standards are achievable.

    Europe leads the way for these reasons.

    The average size of the vehicles is much smaller. Downsizing to this degree in the US given our climate and geography is not a practical solution in my view.

    A lot of the efficiency gains in Europe comes from a reliance on diesel engines. Diesel engines can have the compression really built up, that adds to thermal efficiency. There are limits to this with gasoline engines and to build it further would require a change in our refining to much higher octane gas like Europe. Their lowest octane gas is 93 octane, and their highest 97 octane. Some diesel engines from Europe approach 70% thermal efficiency which is probably the practical limit. You have to have some heat to drive the heater, especially in the Northern US.

    The big downside of diesel engines is small particle emissions, which are a potent driver of cardiovascular, pulmonary and malignant diseases. In Europe there are already steps taking place to limit the popularity of diesels. The Tier 4 regulations, now require very costly and complex exhaust systems for diesels, that include the injection of urea based exhaust injector fluid into the exhaust system to reduce particulate matter pollution. These systems are complex, costly to manufacture and maintain and add weight. All of these events are showing the start of a return to gasoline powered vehicles in Europe.

    The final issue is that you have to have a mix of engine types. You can’t just refine gas or diesel from a barrel of oil. At this time Europe exports its excess gas to the Us and the US exports its excess diesel to Europe.

    As for gasoline engines, the only route to get the last gains of efficiency is to build up compression and change our fuels, get rid of the camshaft, so you don’t waste energy compressing valve springs and add electronically controlled continuously variable valve timing. I think that might buy us around 16% increase in mpg. After that I think we reach the limit for gas engines. I doubt that gets us to 2025 standards. You will also be paying a lot more for high octane gas.

    This is a complex problem with no easy answers. I fully expect politicians to legislate mpg targets, beyond the energy value of a gallon of gas!.

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