Op-Ed: 5 years in, fuel economy standards put savings in drivers’ pockets

Source: By David Friedman, The Hill • Posted: Monday, October 16, 2017

What if our government rolled back a program that saved consumers over $45 billion on fuel since 2010? What if they did this despite the fact that the industry involved enjoyed record sales and profits at the same time? That wouldn’t make sense, would it? But that’s exactly what may happen with the federal fuel economy program — one of America’s most successful efforts to reduce our oil use, cut down on pollution, and save consumers money.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of our country setting targets to nearly double the average miles per gallon of cars and trucks by the year 2025 and providing net savings for consumers throughout the program. Between 2022-2025 alone, the standards are expected to save consumers over $90 billion in fuel costs and position the US to continue leading the world in auto innovation. However, as we commemorate this milestone, the government is taking steps to roll back this commonsense program.

Since 2012, automakers have made substantial progress in improving the efficiency of their cars — in most cases producing vehicles that meet and even exceed the standards each year. Over that same period, the race to build faster, more powerful cars hasn’t let up as automakers are squeezing more power out of all types of engines.

Think about this: A V-6, mid-size family sedan today can get to 60 miles per hour as fast or even faster than many of the iconic V-8 muscle cars of the past. Muscle cars today are even faster than the models from the 1960s – or even the 2000s, and they are safer, cleaner, more efficient and more reliable than ever before.

That’s an incredible achievement. And it illustrates one of the most innovative aspects of the modern fuel economy program — consumers who want sports cars or roomy SUVs are more than able to buy them even as they are getting more and more efficient every day. Take the Ford Mustang — the Ecoboost 4 cylinder version is fast becoming one of model’s top sellers and it offers a 300+ hp engine, gets to 60 in around 6 seconds, and also achieves 25 mpg overall.

Or, if you are in the market for a small or midsize SUV, one of the fastest growing segments in the market today, odds are you’ll get one that achieves anywhere from the low to high 20 miles-per-gallon — a level of efficiency that was unheard of for SUVs 5 years ago. And, of course, if you want a fuel-sipper, you can drive your family around in the Ford Fusion Hybrid that gets over 40 mpg, or a Toyota Prius that easily beats 50 mpg.

Indeed, fuel efficiency improvements have been a boon to consumers across the country. The average new vehicle efficiency has increased by more than 5 miles per gallon over the last decade. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, that translates to more than $45 billion saved for consumers. That’s $45 billion pumped back into local communities as families have more money to spend on local goods and services, helping to boost our economy and create jobs.

With the existing standards in place, fuel efficiency is expected to improve even further. By 2025, households buying new vehicles can expect net savings of $3,200 per car and $4,800 per truck or SUV over the life of that vehicle.

And the program is popular. Nearly 9 in 10 Americans want automakers to continue to boost the efficiency of their vehicles, according to a recent Consumers Union national survey. And over 7 in 10 Americans support the government continuing to set higher efficiency goals. And it’s bipartisan – strong majorities of both Republicans and Democrats support more efficient vehicles.

Yet, despite the program’s success to date, automakers have been asking the government to roll back the standards. That would leave consumers paying more for gas with fewer choices in efficient vehicles.

In recent months, policymakers in Washington have taken steps to start weakening our nation’s efficiency targets. The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have started processes that could erase the success of the program — cutting savings for consumers significantly. Recently introduced bills in the House and Senate would have the effect of further reducing efficiency targets. If passed, consumers of larger vehicles like trucks, SUVs and minivans could be hit the hardest, as the changes to the program could completely stall efficiency improvements in those vehicles.

Looking back at our latest fuel efficiency targets shows that consumers have more choices for efficient vehicles and are saving significant money — all while the auto industry has experienced strong sales and profits. Cars are more efficient, more reliable and safer than ever before. That’s a win-win by any measure and strong evidence that the program should continue to set higher goals.

David Friedman is the director of cars and product policy and analysis for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports. Mr. Friedman was also a former deputy and acting administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration between 2013 and 2015.