In Our View: Fewer Fill-Ups

New fuel-efficiency standards offer long-term hope for drivers

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Imagine filling your car with gasoline only every two weeks instead of weekly. Now imagine spending thousands of dollars less on fuel for your car.

It’s more than a dream. It could happen in 2025 after an agreement announced Friday to double overall vehicle fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon. Top executives from 11 major automakers and an official for a top automobile workers union appeared with President Barack Obama at the announcement of the long-term agreement.

The higher standards represent more than just a financial boost for future drivers. It’s also a means of addressing national security, because the reduction in fuel needs will accelerate American efforts to end the dependence on foreign oil, much of which comes from countries that don’t have the highest opinion of the United States. Achieving a 54.5 mpg standard will reduce U.S. consumption of oil for vehicles by 40 percent.

The agreement also will have an environmental impact. Doubling the fuel-economy standard will halve the amount of pollution coming from vehicle tailpipes.

It was significant that the same auto manufacturers who resisted this trend appeared with the president at the announcement. They were bolstered by a couple of factors.

First, whether one agrees or disagrees with federal assistance programs, domestic auto manufacturers have, for the most part, returned to profitability. They’re not only more willing to negotiate with the government, they’re also more capable of pushing new technologies to reach mileage goals.

Second, those automakers saw some movement in their direction by the administration during recent negotiations over the fuel-efficiency standards. The White House initially proposed 56.2 mpg; many environmental groups were pushing for 62 mpg. The compromise announced Friday — while the highest heat of the debt-ceiling dispute consumed much of the political oxygen — was a refreshing relief from all of that other contention.

Early in this editorial we said the goals “could” happen. That’s because auto manufacturers are required to follow a formula that also gives credits for other advancements such as progress in electric car technology, use of low-emission air conditioning refrigerant and developing technology that shuts down engines at traffic lights. Industry observers say the overall average will likely be lower than 54.5 mpg.

But let’s not quibble about numbers. The encouraging aspect of this agreement is that it moves American automobile technology far beyond the intransigence that saw virtually no advance in national mileage standards for decades. In 1975, the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards were adopted: 27.5 miles per gallon for autos and 24 mpg for light trucks and most SUVs. Those averages went unchanged for years.

Many foreign car manufacturers — particularly in Japan and Korea — either already met those standards or rapidly achieved the goals and went far beyond. American consumers were so impressed that foreign manufacturers were able to bring U.S. manufacturers to their knees.

Now, fortunately, domestic manufacturers not only have new life through new profits, but industry leaders have embraced the kinds of fuel-efficiency standards that set them up for continued profits to 2025 and beyond.

That’s the corporate business angle. More likely, drivers will be more impressed with the impact on personal and family budgets. It will be interesting to see if and how even the doubling of mileage standards can allow the gas guzzlers to keep pace with the emerging electric-vehicle market.

That’s the kind of fierce competition that makes consumers flash a smile that resembles the grill on a 1958 Buick.