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Leon Kaye headshot

U.S. Vehicle Fuel Economy Hits a New Efficiency Record

By Leon Kaye

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released two annual reports that updated the car industry and general public on fuel economy standards and greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light duty trucks.

And the results offer positive news: average fuel economy for all model year 2016 vehicles stood at 24.7 miles per gallon (MPG). The overall average is only a 0.1 mile decrease from the previous model year, but it is still a record.

The EPA attributes this improvement to new automotive technology innovations. Over the past decade, the average weight of personal vehicles has been consistent, yet overall average horsepower of personal vehicles has been increasing at a steady rate.

Furthermore, despite the steady increase in market share that sport utility vehicles (SUVs) have gained within the U.S. automotive market, fuel economy keeps improving. Compared to this same class of vehicles from a generation ago, the more recent SUVs are relatively efficient when compared to past gas guzzlers. Crossover vehicles (or car SUVs) had an average fuel economy of 26.2 MPG; truck SUVs improved in efficiency to 22.2 MPG.

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions performance, data indicates there was a slight increase to 9 grams per mile higher than the EPA’s 2016 emissions standard. But automakers selling vehicles in the U.S. were still compliant, as many of them were able to dip into their “credit banks.”

Under EPA rules, automobile manufacturers could amass greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) credits if their vehicles’ overall carbon footprint exceeded the goals set by the agency. And for the most part, the automakers improved on their GHG emissions between model years 2012 and 2015, allowing them to collect these credits and cash them in during 2016. In the case of some manufacturers, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, they were able to buy credits from the likes of Honda, Nissan, Tesla and Toyota. Despite the slight increase in GHGs from model 2016 vehicles, the EPA concluded that the outlook for improved performance is a positive one, as 19 of the 21 automakers have enough of these credits for the sector to remain compliant through at least 2021.

Reactions to the EPA’s announcements were mixed.

Dan Becker of the Safe Climate Campaign told Reuters that the numbers were one mile per gallon short of what was promised during the Obama Administration. Claiming that the automakers have the technology to improve their vehicles’ overall mileage, Becker said, “The standards need to be strengthened, not weakened.”

Safe Climate Campaign also criticized the automotive sector for capitalizing on low oil prices by manufacturing larger vehicles that are less fuel efficient. “As in recent years, automakers chose to shift production from cars to gas-guzzling SUVs and other light trucks, thwarting the very standard they agreed to,” the group said in a public statement.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) was more measured in its assessment of the EPA’s reports, and the group leveraged this data as an opportunity to urge the Trump White House to maintain existing standards instead of rolling them back.

NRDC researchers acknowledged that some of the shortfall in anticipated fuel economy performance was due to the fact that most automakers are at a lull in the model redesign cycles. But despite some hiccups, the group says that the fuel economy standards in place are working they way they are supposed to.

“The U.S. fuel economy trend is currently headed in the right direction,” concluded the NRDC, “We’ll be fighting to keep it going that way.”

Image credit: Eric Demarq/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye