Majority of automakers ‘backslid’ in 2015, released less efficient models — report 

Source: Benjamin Hulac, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Car manufacturers, required to meet fuel efficiency targets that ramp up each year, can sharply improve their fleets’ performance with the debut of entirely new vehicles, rather than through incrementally tweaking old vehicles.

Yet according to a study of 18 automakers published last week by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), a consumer advocacy group, the majority of the companies’ new fleets for 2015 are less fuel-efficient than the fleets that were new in 2014.

Seven car brands unveiled cars that boosted or maintained the percentage of their fleet that meets corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards — the federal benchmark for fuel performance — while 11 companies offered new cars that lowered the percentage of the cars they sell that meets CAFE targets.

In an interview, Jack Gillis, public affairs director for CFA, said the year-to-year slide was surprising and likely was due to the high number of large, gas-intensive vehicles that hit showrooms this year.

With design times for a new car of three to four years, the plans for heavier, less fuel-friendly cars were probably locked in years ago.

“It’s more a function of what was in the design channel, and it happened to be a large number of vehicles,” he said. “When we look back over the years, it’s a cyclical process.”

The report analyzed about 1,200 model-year 2015 cars. The segment of vehicles that average at or below 16 mpg — the so-called gas guzzler threshold — slipped from 8.5 percent to 6.1 percent of the market. The report did not compile results based on how many of a particular model that companies sold.

For Volvo, although it only produces a handful of models, 29 percent of its fleet is now CAFE-compliant, up from zero in 2014. Honda’s share of compliant vehicles rose, too, as did the shares from luxury brands Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Toyota, Tesla and Mitsubishi all held steady in their performance between this year and last.

The big three American firms all saw declines, but the biggest drop came from an Asian firm.

Kia saw the level of its cars that meet CAFE targets nosedive from 40 percent to 18 percent, after introducing the K900 (a luxury sedan) and the Sedona (an SUV), neither of which meets CAFE targets on its own.

In 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and U.S. EPA issued their final rule for the latest CAFE standards, which covers model years 2017-2025 for passenger cars and light-duty trucks.

The standards require cars to meet higher mpg levels than trucks but must hit a preset, fleetwide mpg goal.

For 2017, the combined goal is 36.6 mpg. And for 2025, the goal is 54.5 mpg — a target some automakers, as well as many within the oil, refining and car-sales industries, have said is too high.

Ford qualifies best-selling truck

After shedding 700 pounds from its brand-name truck by overhauling the model with an aluminum body, Ford won an environmental award at the Washington Auto Show in January with its F-150 (ClimateWire, Jan. 23). The majority of the new, stripped-down F-150s are compliant with 2015 CAFE standards, and one will be compliant until 2021, the report found.

Ford’s new truck, said Gillis, is a testament that the industry can produce larger vehicles and keep up with fuel efficiency rules.

The overall percentage of CAFE-compliant cars decreased from 58 percent to 42 percent from last year; 40 percent of new light trucks and SUVs are compliant, compared to 80 percent in 2014.

“It’s clear than many manufacturers are front and center in terms of complying,” he said. “While the increase this year weren’t as significant in the past,” Gillis added, “we’re still on the road to 54.5.”

Many within the car industry and its offshoot businesses rebuffed the CAFE standards when the rule was first proposed in 2011.

Writing to NHTSA and EPA in February 2012, before the latest standards were completed, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade association for the significant majority of new car sales in the country, tepidly supported the measure, placing doubt on how customers will spend their money.

“The unprecedented effort over the coming 13 years to further our country’s energy and environmental goals will succeed only if consumers buy the fuel-efficiency vehicle technologies that will be offered,” the AAM said in a public comment.

The National Automobile Dealers Association told the agencies that vehicles’ fuel and emissions performance would improve without the rule as drivers pull older cars off the road. A voice for refiners, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers said the long-term targets were infeasible and were based on an “unreasonably aggressive expectation of increased electrification.”

Tesla Motors, joining the chorus, also wrote to the agencies that February, arguing that the standards were a “step in the right direction” but didn’t go far enough.

For model year 2014, 66 percent of new vehicles met CAFE rules. This year, the CFA report found, 41 percent of new models were up to date with CAFE standards.