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

Three charts tell the essential story of how U.S. standards and performance stack up against other countries with national programs to boost fuel economy.

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

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.

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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.)

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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