Op-Ed: You’ll pay more at the pump if Congress rolls back automaker efficiency standards

Source: By David Friedman, The Hill • Posted: Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The federal fuel economy program has been very successful at meeting its mission — helping raise the average efficiency of vehicles sold in the U.S. by about 5 miles per gallon, which has saved consumers over $50 billion since 2010, even as the auto industry has enjoyed record sales and strong profits.

Despite this progress, the auto industry has been lobbying hard to effectively weaken truck standards and retroactively change the rules applying to vehicles sold as much as five years ago, all at the expense of American consumers who would pay more at the pump to fuel their vehicles.

Two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees are holding a joint hearing Tuesday on fuel economy standards for cars and trucks. The hearing is a vehicle for building support for legislation, sponsored by Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), that would undermine the federal vehicle fuel efficiency program.If enacted, this bill would deprive consumers of more fuel efficient choices and lead them to spend billions more at the pump. According to a recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the bill would saddle new car buyers with $1,600 in additional fuel costs over the life of an average vehicle, costing consumers up to $34 billion over the next four years.

Given what’s at stake, it is no surprise that consumers want their cars and trucks to get more miles to the gallon, not fewer. In fact, according to Consumers Union’s most recent survey, consumers are widely in favor of improvements to vehicle efficiency. Nearly nine in 10 Americans say they want to see vehicles of all types continue to improve, including eight in 10 who support continued increase among SUVs and trucks. Over 70 percent said they want the federal government to continue to set higher efficiency standards and enforce them.

Yet, the House bill, ignoring consumer interest, would instead slow progress toward greater efficiency, particularly for SUVs, minivans and trucks. The bill would allow manufacturers to transfer three times more credits from cars to trucks than currently allowed.

It would also offer automakers retroactive credits for vehicles sold as far back as 2012. The glut of new credits could discourage innovation and reduce the need to deploy proven, cost-effective fuel saving technologies in trucks and SUVs, which have the most room for improvement. In fact, some automakers may avoid making any improvements in fuel efficiency for the next four years under this bill.

Each automaker’s target is set based on the size of vehicles sold, so as SUV sales have surged, automakers already have lower targets to meet. By weakening the program even more, the bill would stall progress on saving consumers money at the pump.

Unfortunately, the House bill is just another in a series of attempts to weaken the federal efficiency program. In March, the White House signaled its intentions to delay fuel efficiency targets set for 2022-2025 and proposed massive cuts to EPA’s auto emissions testing lab, which was responsible for uncovering misleading fuel efficiency labeling by a number of automakers in recent years.

In May, a bill similar to the Upton-Dingell bill that would weaken fuel efficiency standards was introduced in the Senate. The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have both initiated processes that could roll back 2022-2025 rules and even raised the possibility of adjusting 2021 standards. Taken together, these efforts are a significant shift in favor of industry demands that would force consumers to bear the burden of increased fuel costs and harmful emissions.

Such efforts to slow progress on fuel economy are short-sighted and counter-productive. Instead of changing the rules in the middle of the program to roll back the vehicle efficiency standards, we should keep strong standards that encourage further innovation to develop cleaner, more efficient cars that save consumers money.

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