Who wouldn’t want a car that gets better gas mileage? Most Americans—in the past. For years surveys showed that U.S. consumers were more focused on a car’s power, safety, roominess or special features, but the public has made an about-face, according to data released yesterday by the Consumer Federation of America. The CFA surveyed 1,001 Americans to learn if their attitudes were in line with federal standards that require automakers to significantly raise the average fuel economy of new cars by 2025. Sounding a bit surprised, CFA spokesman Jack Gillis announced at a press conference that 88 percent of the respondents said fuel economy would be an “important” factor in their next vehicle purchase, and 59 percent said it would be a “very important factor.” In 2008 the Bush administration pushed the federal requirements, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards, moderately higher, after 20 years of little change. In 2011 the Obama administration boosted the levels much higher still. An automaker’s mix of vehicles sold—it’s fleet—must average 35 miles per gallon by 2017 and 54.5 mpg by 2025. After the Obama administration’s hike, critics said the automakers would not be able to boost their averages so high so fast. But Gillis said the car companies are succeeding, noting that 49 percent of their 2013 models already exceed the 2014 requirements and 24 percent already reach the 2017 requirements. “It’s clear the automakers are well on their way to meeting the 2025 standard,” he said. The automakers are making good progress because the latest CAFÉ standards were well designed, said Mark Cooper, the CFA’s director of research. The rules do not dictate which technologies carmakers should use, provide economic benefit for consumers and call for a gradual rise in performance that is manageable for automakers. “The industry can change,” he noted, “and once it does, it starts to get a lot of momentum.” Cooper noted that the biggest factor in raising the average mileage of cars across a manufacturer’s fleet is a dramatic increase in the number of cars that have four-cylinder engines instead of six or eight cylinders, which guzzle more gas. He said the automakers have found ways to make four-cylinder engines more powerful while still consuming less gasoline than their larger counterparts, “giving consumers the types of vehicles they want.” Statements by engineers from those companies, who met earlier this month at the Society of Automotive Engineering’s annual World Congress, confirm Cooper’s assertion. They said they were surprisingly close to staying on track to meet the 2025 numbers, in part because the standards allow them to count diesel-powered cars, which generally get higher mileage than an equivalent gasoline car, as well as hybrid and electric vehicles. They noted that the share of a company’s hybrids and electrics will have to rise to make the 54.5 mpg number; Gillis said more hybrids are on the way, now accounting for 6 percent of car sales. Although CAFÉ standards have come under attack in the past, they may be safe for four more years. Gina McCarthy, who played a key role in brokering the Obama administration's rise in standards with automakers and labor organizations, has been nominated as the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, where she is now an assistant administrator. She has said that if she is confirmed she will defend the standards vigorously. The requirements, she said at her confirmation hearings, are a “first-rate illustration” of how to draft effective standards. Her position may have widespread support: in the CFA poll, 77 percent of respondents who identified themselves as republican said they supported the CAFÉ requirements, along with 87 percent of independents and 92 percent of democrats. McCarthy’s nomination may come to a vote as soon as May 8. Follow Scientific American on Twitter @SciAm and @SciamBlogs. Visit ScientificAmerican.com for the latest in science, health and technology news.
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- Jack Gillis