Reality Check: It's the (Fuel) Economy, Stupid

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that the average fuel economy of the nation’s cars and trucks had reached a 22-year low.

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that the average fuel economy of the nation’s cars and trucks had reached a 22-year low. Given the technological and engineering advancements that have impacted other areas of the automotive industry in recent years—the average vehicle has 93% more horsepower than it did in 1981, and is 29% faster in going from 0-60 mph —this figure seems particularly atrocious.

Of course, the problem is weight. As a result of the popularity of sport utility vehicles and minivans, the average vehicle is today 24% heavier than it was 20 years ago. According to the EPA’s report, if performance and weight of vehicles had remained constant since 1981, fuel economy would be 33% better today.

So who’s to blame? Is it the auto manufacturers? Is it Joe Consumer? Is it the government? One can make a compelling argument against any of these groups. The automakers—which tend to take the most heat on this issue—argue that they are simply responding to consumer demand. And to their credit, most of the major car manufacturers offer at least one “green” model. The problem is that those models aren’t terribly popular with consumers. According to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the top 10 most fuel-efficient vehicles on the market comprise less than 2% of total automobile sales in the U.S.

Speaking of Uncle Sam . . . he hasn’t exactly done his part in raising fuel economy standards either. While the government’s corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) regulations sound rather impressive (they require that automakers achieve a fleet-wide average of 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 20.7 for light trucks), they feature a number of loopholes, which carmakers take advantage of regularly. One of these loopholes lies in the simple fact that nobody has defined what is a car and what is a truck. As a result, automakers simply define their SUVs and minivans as trucks, and get away with meeting the lower CAFE standards.

Another problem with the CAFE standards is that they offer little resemblance to real world driving conditions. Instead, they are calculated in a controlled laboratory environment. According to Business Week magazine, those calculations are “roughly 15% higher than what vehicles get when they’re actually on the road. So U.S. cars burn an extra 1.1 million barrels of oil a day, or more than 400 million barrels a year, than the CAFE levels imply they ought to.”

Ultimately, the power and responsibility for making improvements in fuel economy lies with the consumer. When we start telling Detroit that we want—and are willing to pay for—lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles, the auto industry will respond by giving us just that. But unfortunately, there are too many of us out there in our beloved gas-guzzling SUVs and minivans (yours truly, included) who figure that somebody else should be the first to take that step.