Auto Expert: Get Ready for the 54.5-MPG Debate

Automakers and regulators differ on what it will take to reach the fuel economy target, said an expert at the Advanced Design & Manufacturing conference.

Automakers and government regulators have begun bracing for a contentious, year-long debate that will set the course for the future of the auto industry, an expert told attendees at the Advanced Design & Manufacturing conference in Cleveland last week.

Brett Smith, a program director at the Center for Automotive Research , said the two sides remain far apart on the viability of a plan that calls for automakers to achieve an average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg across their fleets by 2025.

Automakers are worried, and German luxury car manufacturers in particular are “freaking out” about the proposed 54.5-mpg regulation, said Brett Smith of the Center for Automotive Research. (Source: Design News)

“It’s a big disagreement,” Smith said at a technical session titled, Regulatory Updates on NHTSA's 54.5-MPG CAFE Mandate . “The regulators are saying the standards can be met with more efficient gasoline engines. And industry is saying, ‘The technology has been pulled forward faster than anyone anticipated, and we’re still nowhere near meeting the standard.’”

The two sides will need to reach an agreement by April 1, 2018 – the final date agreed upon for a mid-term evaluation of the 54.5-mpg regulation. The stakes are high for both sides. Government agencies – including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) – want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.

Automakers, meanwhile, contend the regulation would cost them hundreds of billions of dollars and possibly lead to the loss of up to 1.1 million American jobs due to reduced vehicle sales.

Smith, who does not represent either side, agreed that the fuel economy target represents a big challenge for automakers. “The automakers are worried,” he said. “The German luxury car manufacturers are freaking out.”

German luxury car makers, such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW, typically load their vehicles with extra features that burn more fuel. Moreover, those cars are heavier and, by their nature, use more powerful drive trains, making it much harder to reach the proposed targets.

Still, government regulators estimate that manufacturers could hit the 2025 targets with fleets that include about 3% hybrids and 4% EVs and plug-ins, Smith said. Automakers argue that they would need about five times that many – approximately 35% hybrids and EVs, he added.

The biggest sticking point, however, is the fact that that pure EVs and plug-ins still don’t sell well enough to make the regulations economically viable, Smith said. “As we’ve gotten more choices from 2011 to 2016, we’ve seen more cool powertrain technologies out there – hybrids, electric vehicles and PHEVs,” he said. “But the sales aren’t going up very fast. We’ve hit an electrification stall-point of about 3-4%.”

Industry analysts will watch carefully to see how well the new breed of $30,000, 200-mile electric cars do in the market, Smith added. “The next frontier is the Chevrolet Bolt,” he told the audience. “But the Bolt is really struggling in the market, even though it’s a great product.”

Smith expects the complaints of automakers to draw little sympathy


I think the auto media has not done a great job to explain what the 54.5 MPG figure means. Maybe Mr. Murray can make this a subject of a future article. It's important to know, in any event, that it's an aggregated number that varies by class of vehicle, hence the ability of the industry to hit the targets with modest penetration of EVs and PHEVs. And also that it does not correspond with the window sticker MPG figures people are commonly familiar with.

Flywheel storage hybrids can get the required drive train efficiency. You get high performance from high peak power availability from storage with a smaller engine giving improved highway economy. In town kinetic energy recovery and part time engine operation can double city MPG. A few miles of operation on storage only is possible i the flywheel is precharged using a plugged in electric motor. Flywheel storage can be very safe since burst wheel containment problems were solved decades ago.

This is a soviet style command and control solution. Just tax fuel at a high enough rate. Consumers will decide if they want high MPG vehicles, or just drive less by moving away from car centric lifestyles.

Yet high taxation is not "soviet style"? With the mandate automakers can target marketing of very high MPG vehicles to a few consumers, and everyone else can keep buying same guzzlers. Those vehicles will still be offered. It's more carrot/stick targeting, than command/control taxation on everyone. It's especially regressive to increase fuel taxes, because it hurts people inversely proportional to income. Many who depend on their vehicles to drive to work do not have other transport options.

The problem is that the fuel efficiencies are calculated across the fleet. Until that changes and is applied to each model, we will see many grossly overpriced EVs in the lineup that only exist so that big fat gas guzzling trucks and SUVs can be sold. How about 40 mpg or better per model within the next five model years?

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