What are Uniform Fuel Efficiency Standards, and Why Are They Important?

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What are Uniform Fuel Efficiency Standards, and why are they important?

Since the start of the 21st century, several emission norms have been enforced to keep pollution under check and prevent a climate disaster. Although the shift to electric cars has started worldwide, with Europe and China leading the charge, internal combustion cars still make up over 98% of sales. The sales are a clear indication that IC cars will be around for quite a while longer. As of now, 14 states along with California have higher standards than the rest because of higher pollution levels. 

Congress first established Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards back in 1975 after the fuel crisis in the early 1970s. The current standards were agreed upon back in 2011 for model years 2017-2025 by President Obama’s administration, along with 13 car manufacturers to increase fuel economy figures to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Ford, GM, Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, and other brands, which constitute 90% of car sales, have all participated in the deal. Modern cars including the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride also follow the same fuel efficiency standards.

However, a mid-term evaluation back in 2016 revealed that the 54.5 MPG goal is unrealistic. Since car sales are going down and a more achievable number will be 50 to 52.6 MPG. Several companies were already adopting modern technologies to improve efficiency, inching towards the final goal. 

The standard was planned in two phases. The first phase would be for MY 2012-2016 and set the global warming pollution standards to 250 grams per mile, and the fuel efficiency standard was set at 34.1 MPG by 2016. During phase two for MY 2017-2025, the emissions were further reduced to 163 grams per mile or 54.5 MPG for new passenger vehicles and light trucks by 2025.  

Later, in 2018, the government agencies now under the leadership of the Trump presidency proposed to roll back some goals set in the original 2012 standards. The 2021 target of 37 MPG will be frozen, requirements on the production of all-electric and hybrid vehicles will be halted, and the legal waiver for states like California to set more stringent standards will be eliminated. The New proposal also sought to withdraw the Clean Air Act set by California in the 1960s, allowing California to set its own standards. When the changes were proposed, California, along with eighteen other states objected to the changes. 

The new standards dubbed the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicle rules will be enforced for vehicle model years from 2022 to 2026. From a safety standpoint, the new standards were proposed to incentivize people into buying new vehicles, making them more affordable and safer, which will ultimately lower fatality rate.

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The new standards went into effect in June 2020, and the goal for 2025 was set at 61.07 MPG for small vehicles, 51.72 MPH for mid-size, and 45.61 for full-size passenger cars. For small trucks, the rating is at 50.39, while bigger models like the Ford F-150 are limited to 30.19 MPG.

The higher efficiency standards will also encourage consumers to buy more IC vehicles by lowering the cost of ownership. However, this will affect the shift to alternative powertrains like electric and hydrogen. 

While the market will inevitably shift to electric in the coming decades, IC cars will still be a viable option. As a whole, passenger vehicles make up more than 20% of the total U.S transportation greenhouse footprint. 

The depleting reserves of fossil fuels have also paved the way for cleaner and renewable fuels such as ethanol. A lot of modern vehicles can run on a blend of gasoline/ethanol, making it an alternative fuel source. Ethanol also gets a higher octane rating, higher oxygen content and high heat of evaporation for better performance. 

Other than modern powertrains, vehicle weight also plays a major role in reducing pollution levels. Reducing component weights using material substitution, parts consolidation, and design optimization will reduce overall vehicle weight, resulting in higher efficiency figures.

If the current trends are followed, the market will meet the proposed CAFE standards thanks to modern technology. Subcompact models like the Kia Rio and Toyota Yaris are expected to make up most of the sales since they can easily achieve 40 – 60 MPG, thanks to smaller engines and lower weight. Hybrid vehicles are also expected to gain popularity. Despite all this, fuel prices are expected to climb continuously over the next decade, making it all the more important for manufacturers to develop vehicles that can return more than 80 MPG.

Safety is also a major concern for CAFE standards. A recent analysis found that the fatality rate is higher in lighter vehicles but cars have a lower death rate compared to SUVs and trucks of similar weight. But, CAFE standards stress more on engineering design than vehicle weight in terms of safety, stating that some small cars have better safety ratings than large trucks. While the move to lighter vehicles will improve fuel efficiency, safety should also be considered. 

Why fuel economy standards are important

As expected, the biggest advantage of adopting new fuel economy standards is the reduction in pollution levels. The standards will also reduce overall consumption of oil, saving money during fill-ups, and protect the public from pollution. They will also force manufacturers to advance automotive technology, creating more research, jobs, and help sustain the US auto industry. 

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Fuel consumption is by far the most important factor with the new standard. By the end of 2025, fuel efficiency will be nearly doubled for new cars and light trucks, significantly reducing the consumption of oil. It is calculated that more than 3 million barrels of oil will be saved per day by 2030, which is equivalent to the total oil imports from both the Persian Gulf and Venezuela combined. The new standards are also predicted to create around half a million jobs in the US economy by 2030, which includes research, manufacturing, and sales of new and upcoming vehicles. 

Considering the environmental effects of fossil fuels, the new standards are predicted to reduce global warming pollution levels by 570 million metric tons in 2030, which is the equivalent of shutting down 140 coal power plants for a year. 

The higher efficiency figures will also significantly boost consumer savings by 2030. Compared to a new vehicle today, consumers will be able to save around $10,000 by opting for a 2025 model over its lifetime, despite the higher purchase price because of modern emission technology.

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