Automakers Can Reach 54.5 MPG, But That Doesn’t Mean They Will

2016 Jeep® Renegade Trailhawk

We’ve all been there: January 1st nears, excitement builds, and you set a lofty goal for yourself. Eat healthier. Hit the gym 5 days a week. Engage friends and family in conversations that are not exclusively about cars. You know, your typical New Year’s resolution. In the following weeks, Whole Foods will record record sales and gym memberships will spike. But by mid-February or so, we’ll return to our old habits, and my loved ones will still be trying to remember which seemingly random collection of letters and numbers is made by Cadillac and which by Mercedes-Benz. Our resolutions—promises we made and agreed to stand behind—have become more akin to suggestions. They’re now goals to strive for and be congratulated on, not requirements by which to live. Don’t feel too bad: as it turns out, the auto industry isn’t too different.

Last month we shared some news regarding our three favorite automotive acronyms: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard. The 54.5-mpg CAFE standard agreed upon by the EPA and NHTSA—something always understood to be a mandate—was re-explained as a projection. Automakers are still expected to hit that mark (which really equates to about 42 “real-world” mpg), but there won’t be legal implications if certain manufacturers fail to do so. That sound you hear is Detroit (and crossover-crazy Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in particular) breathing a sigh of a relief.

A week ago, however, the EPA’s man in charge of transportation and air quality, Chris Grundler, announced the agency isn’t interested in backing down from the CAFE 54.5-mpg goal. From Automotive News:

“We are in the beginning stages of tackling one of the most challenging issues of our time, which is climate change.” Grundler said. “This is a global environmental problem. It will require every country and every economic sector to take meaningful action…”

“This has been one of EPA’s highest priorities,” Grundler said. “We have put more people and more dollars and more test time in more [engine test] cell time in this project than we did in establishing the original standards.”

Grundler expounded on the advancements in fuel efficiency across the industry, and to be sure, the technology required to hit the CAFE standard is well on its way. However, the relaxation of the CAFE standard mandate has less to do with where today’s (or tomorrow’s) technology stands and more to do with the buying habits of the current generation of car shoppers.

When the 54.5-mpg standard was decided upon, it was based upon the assumption that fleets would have twice as many cars as trucks and SUVs. Fast-forward to the present day, however, and that balance is closer to 50/50. Cheap gas plays a part in this reality, as folks aren’t hurting quite so much when they fill up their Chevy Suburban as they were four years ago. However, public perception of what really counts as excellent fuel economy has to be considered as well. Not long ago, anything over 30 mpg was considered great. Today, however, 30 mpg is decidedly average, with cars like the 2016 Toyota Prius returning over 50 in both city and highway driving. When trading in your 2005 Honda Civic, which delivers 27 mpg city/34 highway, are you going to bat an eye at the 24/31 rating on the Jeep Renegade?

The brand-new Prius, despite its downright astonishing fuel efficiency, has struggled to sell in impressive quantities this year, and Toyota has gone as far as to delay the upcoming Prius Prime. Meanwhile, 2016 Toyota Tacomas continue to sell like hotcakes. Grundler and the EPA insist that the technology needed to adjust for consumer shopping habits is within reach. The question is, will car companies invest in developing gas-sipping cars when shoppers are spending their money elsewhere?

Do you think automakers can reach the 54.5-mpg CAFE standard?

-Matt Smith

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