When CAFE Meets EPA: A Tale of Two Fuel Economy StandardsBy John O'Dell May 20, 2009
OK, gulp down a couple aspirin, take a few calming deep breaths and bear with us: we're about to try to explain why 35.5 miles per gallon doesn't really mean 35.5 miles per gallon as far as the average consumer is concerned.
2009 Chevrolet Cobalt already achieves CAFE standard for 2016 model year.
One of the few secrets that Washington has managed to keep is that the fuel efficiency numbers politicians toss around when discussing the "corporate average fuel economy," or CAFE, standard are not the same as the EPA fuel efficiency numbers that journalists and most everyone else use when discussing mileage and that consumers have been trained to look for when shopping for a new car.
So while the new federal fuel economy program announced by President Obama this week sets 35.5 MPG as the federal fuel efficiency standard for 2016, it doesn't necessarily mean there will be a lot of cars and trucks in the market seven years from now with wndow stickes tht boast of 35.5-miles-per-gallon fuel economy.
Indeed, the CAFE number can be achieved by a fleet of new vehicles that gets an EPA fuel economy average of just 27 miles a gallon.
Confused? Don't feel bad. It's hard not to be confounded by the way the government uses two different methods to measure miles per gallon.
On the plus side, we're talking about a 30 percent increase in average fuel economy from today's standards, and setting it is a coup for the administration because it marks first time automakers and environmentalists have lined up with the government and agreed in advance to support a CAFE increase.
But that's not going to help car shoppers wondering, as many already are, what 35 MPG cars are going to be like - will they be so light and small a Mini or Smart would dwarf them?
Some also wonder whether the auto industry will be able to offer much in the way of variety, or low price, in vehicles that meet the new CAFE standard. After all, there are only five cars sold in the U.S. today - all hybrids - that get better than 35 miles per gallon.
But converting CAFE to EPA fuel economy, changes the picture: There already are quite a few cars and trucks with the requisite EPA fuel economy numbers, and many more that are close and wouldn't need much of a push to get over the hump,
Green Car Advisor examined the problem of EPA vs CAFE fuel economy the last time there was a big CAFE change, and today we'll try to update things to make some sense out of what the president has just proposed.
The president didn't change CAFE, which was just revised at the end of 2007. Instead, he moved the deadline for hitting 35.5 MPG up from 2020 to 2016. He also announced, for the first time since the standard originally was set, the individual car and truck standards: Passenger cars must average 39 miles per gallon, light trucks 30 MPG.
The rules don't mean all vehicles have to achieve the CAFE standard - it is an average, not a minimum. There just have to be sufficient vehicles in the national fleet that get more than 35.5 MPG to offset those that don't make the grade.
And remember, we've been talking about CAFE numbers.
In the real world - or as real as we can get - the cars and trucks on dealers' lots are still going to be wearing EPA fuel economy labels. And it only requires an EPA rating of 29 miles per gallon for a passenger car to equal the CAFE rating of 39 MPG, while 23 MPG on the EPA scale equates to the truck segment's CAFE standard of 30 miles a gallon.
Finally, there's no requirement that consumers use the CAFE numbers when shopping for new vehicles. Except for the higher fuel costs of a less-efficient vehicle - and the potential of reduced resale value - there's no penalty for buying a 15 MPG truck or 24 MPG car just because the CAFE standard for each type of vehicle is higher.
CAFE isn't meant to directly change consumer attitudes and buying habits - as would a fuel tax or registration fees based on fuel-economy. Rather it is a political tool aimed at dictating, to a degree, the types of vehicles the industry will be able to offer.
Click the links below to see the cars and trucks available today with EPA fuel economy ratings that meet the 2016 CAFE standard.