About one year ago, 13 major automakers and the United Auto Workers announced they would support efforts by the Obama administration to double fuel economy for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025. They did so for many reasons, not the least of which was to deflect demands from environmentalists for even more drastic increases in efficiency. We editorialized at the time that the compromise could mean considerable savings to motorists and enhance national security by reducing U.S. dependency on foreign oil.On Tuesday, the new efficiency standard was formally announced, and it's good news for recession-ravaged motorists and recovery-aspiring automakers. An industrywide average of 54.5 miles per gallon will be required by 2025. That's a long way to go, but we've got a long time to get there: 13 years. And assisting the effort is the existing plan to raise average fuel economy to 35.5 mpg by 2016. The current standard -- accompanied by a formula so complex as to test the patience of the most advanced engineers -- is about 36 mpg for cars on average, but varies widely according to vehicle types.
So this is not an abrupt or overly challenging shift to greater fuel efficiency. And it will be reviewed after five years to see if the new standards are practical and on track.
Critics of the plan complain that the change will dramatically increase the price of cars and light trucks, perhaps by as much as $3,000 each. Administration officials say that will be more than compensated for by fuel savings. White House officials on Tuesday said the change will be the equivalent of a $1-per-gallon cut in fuel prices.
It's instructive to review how this issue stood more than three decades ago, and what happened as the years unfolded. In 1975, Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards were 27.5 mpg for cars, and domestic automakers weren't much interested in using efficiency as part of the sales pitch to customers. Foreign companies filled that void with such success that U.S. automakers were left struggling to compete. Indeed, they still are.
It also helps to remember that this standard is an industry average. That subtopic was explored by John O'Dell of car-shopping website Edmonds.com in an interview with usnews.com. O'Dell said that in 2025: "There will be 10 miles per gallon trucks and 50 miles per gallon vehicles. The goal is flexible and based on their best guess of what the mix of vehicles will be in 2025." O'Dell's prediction seems to offset complaints that Americans are being forced to buy small, low-powered vehicles. Common sense tells us that, for every customer who wants a gas guzzler, there are many more who want 54.5 mpg or better. And that could mean the average will be easier to reach than many suspect.
In a Tuesday statement, President Barack Obama said the formalized standards "represent the single-most important step we've ever taken to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. … It'll strengthen our nation's energy security, it's good for middle-class families and it will help create an economy built to last."
And remember: If electric-powered cars become popular, untold numbers of Americans won't even care about the price of gasoline.