Industry Market Trends

EPA's New Report Says U.S. Fuel Economy is Still on the Rise

Mar 26, 2013

Credit: Michelle Meiklejohn. Credit: Michelle Meiklejohn.

There's good news for the nation when it comes to automotive fuel economy. According to a new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, the U.S. saw a significant 1.4 mpg increase in fuel efficiency in 2012 cars and trucks alongside a continued decrease in carbon pollution.

The EPA report was released in mid-March. The research underscores the major increases the vehicles on U.S. roads have made to both reduce oil consumption and cut emissions, said the agency.

The EPA's preliminary figures (which are based on estimates provided by automakers) show a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions to 374 grams per mile and an increase in average fuel economy to 23.8 mpg. These numbers represent some of the largest annual improvements since the EPA began tracking fuel economy in the early 1970s. The 2012 figures would also more than make up for a 0.2 mpg dip in fuel efficiency that occurred in 2011 (this slight decrease was attributed to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami-related disruptions to Japanese automakers).

The EPA's fuel efficiency figures mapped and graphed from 1971 to 2012. The EPA's fuel efficiency figures mapped and graphed from 1975 to 2012.

"Today's report shows that we are making strides toward saving families money at the pump, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cleaning up the air we breathe," said Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation. "The historic steps taken by the Obama administration to improve fuel economy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil are accelerating this progress, will spur economic growth, and will create high-quality domestic jobs in cutting edge industries across America."

The historic steps McCarthy refers to are the Obama administration's National Clean Car Program standards issued in 2011, which were designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and double fuel economy standards by 2025. According to the White House and the EPA, these new standards will save American families $1.7 trillion dollars in fuel costs, and by 2025 will result in an average fuel savings of more than $8,000 per vehicle. The rules will also save 12 billion barrels of oil, and by 2025 are expected to reduce oil consumption by more than two million barrels a day: about half the amount the U.S. imports from OPEC each day. In addition, the President said he plans to ask Congress to create a $2 billion energy security trust to fund research in alternative fuels such as biofuel from agricultural waste and algae. The money for this research will reportedly come from oil drilling permits and higher oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico.

Both automakers and consumers should be given credit for the improvements. From the automakers, there is simply more to choose from when it comes to fuel-efficient cars, and clearly, consumers are willing to buy them. (This hasn't always been the case.) Consumers today have twice as many hybrid and diesel vehicle to choose from compared to just five years ago, plus more variety in hybrid options and plug-in electric vehicles, the latter of which aren't even included in the EPA's report.

According to Popular Mechanics, the new fuel economy standards can be attributed to two factors: car weights remaining steady and engines becoming more efficient. Though cars aren't as light as they were in the mid-1980s, a combination of high vehicle power and stable weight has enabled the automotive industry to boost fuel efficiency.

"From 1987 to 2004, cars got progressively heavier as they got faster, and since fuel economy wasn't a primary concern for consumers, it suffered," blogged Steve Rousseau of Popular Mechanics. "Recently, the industry has tried to strike a balance between performance and vehicle weight-producing faster 0-60 times while maintaining vehicle weight to keep mpg figure[s] in check."

The mileage trend would appear to be continuing in 2013, with January of this year hitting a record 24.5 mpg, according Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). This represents an increase of 0.4 mpg in one month from December 2012 to January 2013.

Americans are also driving less than they were just six or seven years ago, according to the Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Commission, which keeps track of traffic volume trends. Compared to the highest traffic volume point in U.S. history, which occurred in June of 2005, traffic volume in January 2013 was down nearly 8.6 percent.

Some environmental groups, while cautiously praising the trend, say the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. Green Car Reports points out that both Kia and Hyundai are currently being sued for inaccuracies in reported EPA figures, and some Ford hybrid drivers are finding their real-world mpg figures are missing marketed mpg figures by as much as 20 percent, suggesting that there may be something amiss in the testing and reporting process.

Consumers claim the Ford C-MAX Hybrid is not capable of the advertised 47 mpg. Credit: Ford. Consumers claim the Ford C-MAX Hybrid is not capable of the advertised 47 mpg. Credit: Ford Motor Co.

Some recent tests on two new hybrid cars from Ford -- the 2013 C-Max Hybrid hatchback and the 2013 Fusion Hybrid sedan -- have not been able to get anywhere near the car's marketed 47 mpg EPA ratings. Both Green Car News and Automotive News thoroughly tested the C-Max hybrid, and neither test was able to exceed 40 mpg, despite testing under a variety of different conditions. Eight C-Max Hybrid owners who submitted their real-world mileage to averaged just 40.7 mpg, still far short of the automaker's claims for the car. Green Car News notes that this is surprising, because other Ford hybrids, including the Escape Hybrid, easily attained the promised mileage.

Ford executives offered Green Car News the expected explanation that different owners will achieve different mileage results, that efficiency depends greatly on driver behavior, and that customers have told Ford about real-world mileages both above and below the 47 mpg combined rating.

If some numbers are being fudged, it's not a practice limited to the U.S. British newspaper the Guardian, in its Autoblog Green, reported that some carmakers in Europe are over-inflating tires, taping up gaps in doors and windows to reduce rolling resistance and adjusting brakes for less resistance to boost fuel efficiency figures. In Europe, it's not only about fooling car buyers: in EU nations, cars with higher fuel efficiencies are taxed at lower rates.

"EU laws intended to reduce CO2 emissions from cars and vans are only being met in the laboratory, not on the road," Greg Archer, the clean vehicles manager for Brussels-based research organization Transport and Environment, told the Guardian. "The only way to rebuild this trust is by closing loopholes in the current test procedures, to ensure that cheaters never prosper."

In the UK, drivers are achieving 87 percent of the official figures on average, but some are as low as 70 percent or less. The larger discrepancies tend to occur in economy cars.

But the truth is that automakers are probably not breaking any laws in either the U.S. or EU by overstating numbers. Transport And Environment, which carried out extensive research on the gaps in fuel economy reporting, noted, "There is no evidence that carmakers are breaking any formal rules -- but they don't need to -- the current test procedures are so lax there is ample opportunity to massage the test results."

Fudged numbers aside, it does seem that fuel standards are continuing to move in the right direction. While car buyers may have been unwilling to play their part and actually buy the cars a decade or so ago, a stagnant economy and $4 per gallon for gas in some regions seem to have changed minds and buying habits rather rapidly.