How Will New CAFE Standards Change the Cars We Drive?

How will new fuel efficiency requirements that went into effect last week change the look, feel — and price — of your next car? Experts say expect prices to rise, and smaller, lighter, technologically advanced vehicles to grow in number.

First, an overview

New Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards published last week require most automakers to raise the average fuel efficiency of the vehicles they sell to 34.1 miles to the gallon by the 2016 model year rising to 35 mpg when efficiency gains in air conditioning are included. Currently, the CAFE for cars stands at 27.5 mpg, and 23.1 for light trucks.

The standards are expect to reduce CO2 emissions by about 30 percent between 2012 and 2016, and save the country $240 billion from fuel savings, pollution reduction and reduced imports. Automakers have accepted the new standards because they are firm, ending a period of uncertainty; and nation-wide, so manufacturers do not have to contend with a patchwork of different state requirements.

More expensive on the front end, cheaper over time

So how will the average new car in 2016 be different from ones on the lot today? First off, it will cost more.

The new standards are expected to cost automakers $52 billion, and those costs will trickle down to consumers: the price tag on a new car will be $1,100 higher, according to Consumer Reports. But fuel savings will be significant: up to $3,000 over the life of the average vehicle.

Of course, the cost of meeting the standards for less efficient cars could be much higher — it could cost $9,000 more to bring a full-sized pick-up up to par, according to TireBusiness.com.

New spins on old technologies

The CAFE standards are not going to single-handily usher in the era of the electric car. All-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf have garnered a lot of press attention, but the technology is still very expensive compared to gasoline engines.

Rather, the standards will first and foremost incentivize improvements to gasoline engines. Dual-clutch and seven or eight speed automatic transmissions could increase fuel efficiency, along with lighter components.

Diesel engines, which are typically more fuel-efficient, are likely to be more familiar in the States as a result of the change. More hybirds like the Prius, Chevy Volt and others will help automakers meet the new standards.

Style may be sacrificed for efficiency, with designers focusing on aerodynamics from the get-go. There’s a reason the Prius and Volt have the same tear-drop shape.

For an example of the “typical car of 2016″ one might look no further than the diesel Volkswagon Golf, a compact, aerodynamic car that gets 38 miles to the gallon – and is still capable of carrying four people fairly comfortably.

Will cars be as safe?

The most astonishing thing about the recent CAFE changes is how little acrimony there has been over the standards. In the past, car makers raised a number of arguments against better fuel efficiency requirements, including the spectre of lighter, more fuel-efficient cars causing additional traffic fatalities. And in fact, data suggests that anywhere from 1,300 to 3,900 more people died on American roads each year as a result of the last set of regulations, in the 1970s and 1980s.

The increase is attributed to the lighter weight of more efficient cars, meaning there is less bulk shielding passengers in a collision. Fatalities per vehicle mile driven has steadily fallen in the last several decades however.

American automakers seemed reluctant to raise this, or any other argument this time around, perhaps because two of the Big Three were, and still are, relying on the federal government to survive.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.