New Mileage Rules Encourage Small Cars To Become Big Trucks For Lower MPG

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2005 Subaru Outback Rear

2005 Subaru Outback Rear

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Automakers have long known there's a double standard for gas mileage.

Cars have to meet higher goals, trucks have less stringent requirements. And the larger the vehicle, the lower the average fuel economy it has to deliver.

The proposed fuel economy standards for 2017 through 2025 vehicles perpetuate those distinctions.

Worse, the new rules continue profit incentives that led car companies to reclassify hundreds of thousands of vehicles not as cars but as light trucks--meaning their required gas mileage was lower.

And the standards may encourage automakers to enlarge vehicle footprints, lowering the mileage they must deliver.

The proposed standards issued jointly by the EPA and NHTSA require a corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) level of 54.5 mpg by 2025.

That translates to EPA gas-mileage ratings in the low to mid 40s (lower than today's 2012 Toyota Prius and 2012 Toyota Prius C hybrids)--perhaps as little as 35 mpg in the real world, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Truck = "non-passenger vehicle"

First, the car vs. truck rule. That distinction made sense in the 1970s, when sport-utility vehicles and crossovers didn't exist (back then, they were station wagons) and the idea of using a crude, uncomfortable, utilitarian pickup truck as personal transport was an oddity for most drivers.

That changed in the 1990s, and the importance of the distinction came to public light in late 2004, when Subaru actually changed its all-wheel drive Outback sedan to a "light truck" from a car simply by jacking up the ground clearance.

Every Subaru sold in the U.S. is fitted with all-wheel drive--so it merely had to raise the ride height of its Legacy sedan to truck levels and, voila, instant "non-commercial vehicle," and instantly lower MPG requirement.

(As it turned out, few buyers wanted a jacked-up sedan with side cladding and graphics; Subaru dropped its Outback sedan for 2010. But it did the same to Outback wagons as well, which became trucks for 2005 and have stayed that way.)

AWD for family haulers

But in fact, AWD and ride height are two of the criteria used to distinguish between a "car" and a "light truck" under CAFE rules.

2003 Ford F-350 Power Stroke

2003 Ford F-350 Power Stroke

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Other criteria include the shape of the load bay, and the presence of folding or removable seats. If a vehicle meets most of these criteria, it can be designated a light truck--as many minivans and crossovers are today.

Don Anair, a senior engineer in the clean vehicles program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, writes today on the UCS blog about why the difference between cars and trucks matters for fuel economy.

The UCS had previously written about the "loopholes and weak standards" for pickup trucks and large sport utilities in the new standards, which it generally lauded.

Does your crossover carry people?

Anair notes that the vast majority of all-wheel drive crossovers and sport utilities, defined as "non-passenger vehicles," are not used in commercial, agricultural, or industrial use, but solely for personal transport.

In fact, AWD has become a safety feature for family haulers, even though it will never be used off-road or even on anything muddier than a school soccer field. In regions with snowy and icy conditions, it is a must-have feature for many classes of vehicles.

2012 Honda CR-V - First Drive

2012 Honda CR-V - First Drive

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According to EPA gas-mileage ratings, adding all-wheel drive to a 2012 Honda CR-V reduces mileage by roughly 3 percent. But the new standards allow a 16-percent difference, meaning that Honda has an incentive to sell more of its CR-Vs as "light trucks" rather than cars.

Anair proposes that it's time to revisit the definition of a "truck," and he will be testifying to that effect today at a public hearing on the proposed rules being held in San Francisco.

Footprint formula for safety

Second, the footprint formula. U.S. gas-mileage rules were changed in 2006 from a pair of standards--one for cars, one for trucks--to a "footprint based" formula, in which different vehicle sizes were assigned different fuel efficiency targets.

That reduced the chance that all cars would get smaller, and hence (theoretically) less safe.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it also protected full-line domestic automakers--which at that point were arguably unable to make money building compact and subcompact cars--by ensuring continued sales of profitable trucks.

2012 Chevrolet Sonic hatchback, road test, Catskill Mountains, Oct 2011

2012 Chevrolet Sonic hatchback, road test, Catskill Mountains, Oct 2011

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For a more detailed explanations of the "tall grass of CAFE’s sordid, politically charged history" and the undeniable complexities of auto design tradeoffs, Popular Mechanics has a nice summary.

But it created a perverse incentive: Build a car with the interior space of a compact, but on a mid-size footprint (to kick it into the larger vehicle class), and it would only have to meet the lower mileage standard of the larger car. Meaning compacts that are ... errr ... more compact get penalized.

"Substantial incentive" for larger vehicles

A University of Michigan study published in Energy Policy noted, "there may be a substantial incentive to produce larger vehicles" that could "undermine the goals of the policy."

The U of M researchers created a simulation that allowed modeling of supply and demand, engineering tradeoffs, and other variables to ascertain likely vehicle mix in future years under the new standards.

The study team concluded the goal of preventing smaller cars "overshot its target," and in fact created incentives for automakers to build larger and more truck-like vehicles.

But, said Kate Whitefoot, who conducted the research and is now a senior program officer at the National Academy of Engineering, "the policy can be adjusted to reduce these unintended incentives."

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Comments (12)
  1. I am confused, I thought they already had a solution to this problem. It is two pass approach.

    In year one, they set targets for each class of vehicles based on footprint and the current mix of sales for that manufacturer. But the manufacturer still must meet the target MPG for that year or risk penalty regardless of the mix of vehicles. However, they will not be penalized if they met the targets for the year.

    In year two, the EPA readjusts the targets for a given vehicle footprint based on the year one sales mix. So if you sell more larger vehicles, your targets for fuel efficiency will increase for them.

    The footprint mpgs are only temporary targets, the manufacturer still must reach the target overall CAFE goals.

  2. It'd be nice if it were structured that way, but sadly it's not. The curves change over time as the overall standard gets more stringent, but those curve changes are predetermined and not a function of sales mix shifts.

    Simply put: If a company decides to upsize their vehicles or reclassify cars as trucks, they'll be held to a less-stringent requirement than they otherwise would have.

    Jim Kliesch
    Research Director, Clean Vehicles Program
    Union of Concerned Scientists

  3. John, what you describe would be one way to implement a backstop to ensure the 54.5 target is actually achieved.  But the current proposal does not readjust the foot print curves based on sales mix changing over time.  The footprint curves are fixed, but the sales mix is subject to change.
    Don Anair
    Union of Concerned Scientists

  4. So what happened. I didn't dream this up, I read it somewhere. Sure I can have a faulty memory from time to time, but could a faulty memory develop a complex two pass scheme. I don't think so.

  5. Two thoughts.
    1) Raising a Trucks mpgs from 15 mpg to 20 mpg (.016 gallons/mile) actually saves more fuel and produces less pollution than trading in your family car at 30 mpg for a Prius at 50 mpg (.013 gallons/mile). So, increasing the fuel efficiency of trucks a little goes a long way.

    2) Gas prices are going up. And Gas taxes are going to have to go up soon too. That is going to start pushing people toward smaller cars, and their mileage is going to be much, much better.

  6. Kind of misses the point of the article. It would nice to see people pushed out of light trucks and into Priuses rather than the other way around.

    Personally I went from a mini-van (a light truck) to a Prius (car) and went from 18 to 50 mpg. Clearly something to be encouraged by the legislation.

    Far too many people have been pushed the other way by legislation, from station wagons (which CAFE helped kill) into mini-vans.

  7. Well, I doubt that many people are like you. Most people buy large vehicles because they think they need them. Not very many families with 3 kids and two adults are going to move from their minivan to a prius. It just ain't going to happen. People tend to be very selfish and will buy what makes sense to them at the time.

    Hopefully, the new Cafe standards will move them from the 18 mpg minivan to a 25 mpg minivan. Sure, it's not perfect, but it's at least a step in the right direction. And for most people, that's all they will let you ask of them.

  8. I am surrounded by people like me. People dumping SUVs, luxury sedans, etc, to purchase Priuses. We just need to get the word out that this stuff matters.

  9. Well, I am from Texas. People like big cars here. (My wife wants a Mazda 5 and I think, eww it's so large.)

  10. I hear you. I am from Boston and, frankly, it is easier to convince people to drive smaller. Driving a large SUV in Boston traffic is no joy and most people figure this out. Sometimes they just need one more small benefit to get them into a smaller car.

  11. Of course if 54.5MPG were the target for the average fuel consumption of all vehicles (including trucks) SOLD by a carmaker in 2025 rather than the target for the range OFFERED by every carmaker there wouldn't be a problem.

  12. As the designer of the world first commericial jet airliner The DH Comet said to his design engineers:

    "Add Lightness!"

    This was repeated by Colin Chapman of 1960s Lotus F1 fame.

    Even in the EU cars have become ridiculously huge - in the name of safety but actually with smaller roads than in the US, collisions are now more likely as driers are less aware of the outside dimensions of their lumbering "mid-sized" compacts!

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