Automakers Fighting for Dirtier Cars?

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Cowritten by Danielle Fugere and Zack Reda

As the Trump administration announces a weakening of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, it is important that American automakers do not ease up in their emission reductions.

In 2012, the Obama administration worked with automakers and the State of California to reach an agreement to raise the national fuel economy standard to 54.5 miles per gallon (MPG) for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025. In announcing the stronger standards, Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood underscored that the rules would “result in vehicles that use less gas, travel farther, and provide more efficiency for consumers than ever before—all while protecting the air we breathe.” Since the updated standards went into effect, automakers have made great progress in improving fuel economy standards. For example, the 2011 Toyota Camry and the 2011 Subaru Impreza previously had fuel economies of 33 MPG and 27 MPG, respectively; in 2018 Camry and Impreza achieve up to 41 MPG and 38 MPG.

On April 2nd, 2018, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt claimed our nation “set the standards too high” for fuel economy, announcing plans to weaken the standards and end the progress we’ve been making in saving consumers money, cleaning the air, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

CAFE standards set by the federal government ensure each year’s passenger cars and light trucks meet a certain mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency. The purpose of CAFE standards is to reduce energy consumption by improving fuel economy. Current CAFE standards also drive automakers to invest in new avenues of research, including electric vehicle technologies.

These strong standards are imperative for U.S. automakers to stay competitive in a global market. Companies rarely achieve greater pollution reductions than required by law. So a weak standard in the U.S. can easily put U.S. automakers behind the curve. The European Union plans to meet a fuel standard of 56.8 gallons by 2021. China set their standard at 47.7 gallons by 2020. India, South Korea, and Japan all have comparable fuel-efficiency goals as well.

If the American auto-industry plans to stay competitive without federal law to drive efficiency gains, automakers will need to create their own ambitious fuel-efficiency goals. Frankly, Ford and GM’s current behavior does not match their bold promises for the future. Both companies are altering their lineups by doing away with compact cars and sedans and replacing them with SUVs and trucks. Both Ford and GM ran into serious trouble in the past because of their line-ups of large cars. As gas prices ramp up, they may find themselves in a similar situation.

Between 2010 and 2016, Ford and GM have sold 83,701 and 116,293 electric vehicles respectively, small numbers in comparison to total sales of over 16.6 million in 2017 alone. But both companies have plans for new models to drive forward their electric vehicle (EV) fleets. While both have made ambitious statements regarding the future of their electric vehicle fleets, their lobbying for lower standards puts these efforts into question. Neither company has announced specific EV sales targets. The outcome of lowered standards is likely to be tepid efforts at best to move EVs, particularly in the American market.

Transportation is responsible for more than 28 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, a major source of climate change. As individuals around the world grow more conscious about the environmental crises we face, the demand for vehicles that use alternative energies, or enable drivers to visit the pump less frequently, will only increase. Under our current CAFE standards, the auto-industry is evolving at an accelerated rate. This is no time to stop progress. GM and Ford must fight the short term thinking that equates large vehicles with large profits. The certainty of those days are over.