Tuesday, September 11, 2012

New US Vehicle Fuel Standards Off Target

The Obama Administration has announced that it is adopting new rules concerning vehicles' fuel efficiency. The Administration will demand a near doubling of the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency Standards (CAFE) by 2025. Automakers will have to improve the overall fuel efficiency of their fleet from 27.5 miles per gallon to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, saving the United States a supposed 2 million barrels of imported oil a day.
Also included by the Obama Administration are incentives for the introduction of natural gas-powered vehicles in addition to further incentives for both all-electric and hybrid vehicles. It remains to be seen whether these incentives for electric vehicles work any better than previous ones as electric cars have been a tough sale to the consuming public.

Automakers including General Motors (NYSE: GM), Ford (NYSE: F), Toyota Motor ADR (NYSE: TM) and Chrysler – majority-owned by Italy's Fiat S.p.A. ADR (NASDAQOTH: FIATY.PK) will all be affected by the new rules. General Motors and Ford, for example, are launching major initiatives to drop the weight of their cars, all with goal of improving their fuel economy. Toyota is developing hydrogen-powered vehicles which, if successful, will easily allow them to meet the new standard. In addition, automakers are downsizing their engines. The V8 used in cars like the Dodge Charger, in the words of Chrysler chairman Sergio Marchionne, will become “as rare as white flies”.

Eleven of the major automakers, including those mentioned above, have all publicly “endorsed” the standards put forth, perhaps happy that now these nationwide standards will avert California setting its own even tougher standards. But privately, executives at some leading automakers are warning that these new standards will distort the U.S. vehicle market and will likely not deliver the projected reductions in overall fuel demand.

The most outspoken automaker, which has not not endorsed the new fuel standards, is Germany's Volkswagen AG ADR (NASDAQOTH: VLKAY.PK). It rightly points out that initially the standards do not demand as much improvement from gas guzzlers like SUVs and pick-up trucks than from smaller cars, which are already fuel efficient. The regulations count these vehicles as 'trucks' which are subject to less stringent requirements.

This in effect penalizes companies that concentrate on passenger cars like Volkswagen. In addition, the new fuel standards may have a perverse effect on fuel consumption by having some vehicle makers pushing sales of fuel-inefficient pick-ups and SUVs at the expense of other smaller, fuel-sipping vehicles. Also companies that have fuel-saving technology such as clean diesel receive no extra credits under the rules. There are substantial credits for hybrid technology and “stop-start” technology which turns engines off even when vehicles are stopped for a moment.

Even supporters of the new regulations have their doubts about them. The vice-president of technical and regulatory affairs at Toyota Motor North America, Tom Stricker, told the Financial Times “Whether or not they will lead to the level of reductions and improvements that the regulations hope and expect is an open question.”

That is an understatement. Without tough regulations on SUVs and pick-up trucks, what is the incentive for automakers to switch to producing fuel-efficient cars or for Americans to switch away from driving their gas guzzlers? Look for sales of big Ford and GM pick-ups to continue unabated in the years ahead, albeit with smaller engines.


  1. Its open to debate if fuel economy standards are a good idea. If gas gets more expensive consumers will shift to smaller and more fuel efficient cars.

  2. Fuel economy standards should have been increased a long time ago.