DETROIT — A federal estimate shows better technology and Americans' demand for more efficient cars and trucks will drive the average fuel economy of new vehicles to the highest level ever.
Automakers and environmentalists hailed the projected increase for 2007 model year vehicles as a sign of progress toward reducing U.S. demand for foreign oil. But the news also could cause automakers some trouble by providing new backing to supporters of tougher federal fuel economy standards under debate in Washington.
The report "shows that automakers' claims that consumers don't want higher fuel economy is false," said David Friedman, director of the clean vehicles program with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It's clear consumers are feeling pressure of higher gas prices, global warming, and oil insecurity, and making do with the choices they have."
Based on sales estimates from automakers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) calculated that 2007 models, including both cars and light trucks, would average 26.4 miles per gallon, surpassing the previous peak of 26.2 in 1987. The increase of one mile per gallon, or 3.9%, from the 2006 models follows two years of no change in the fleet average.
NHTSA says the average fuel economy of cars is expected to rise by 1.2 to 31 mpg, while the light truck average is expected to rise by 0.7 to 22.9. Among cars, domestically built models are expected to increase their fuel economy by 0.4 to 30.5 mpg, while imported cars are expected to post the largest gain of 1.2 mpg to 31.7 mpg.
The numbers exclude the largest models and could be revised once automakers and NHTSA collect actual sales data of 2007 models. But an increase of one mile per gallon could translate to fuel savings in the hundreds of millions of gallons. U.S. drivers burn 385 million gallons of gasoline a day.
"This is a terrific illustration of the progress that the industry has made in providing consumers with more fuel-efficient automobiles," said Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group that includes General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler LLC, and Toyota Motor Corp.
All three Detroit automakers are estimated to have improved their performance over the previous year. The former DaimlerChrysler has the largest projected increase, boosting its domestic car average by nearly 3 mpg to 28.6 mpg, thanks mostly to new models such as the Dodge Caliber, and its truck average by 1.1 to 22.8.
Ford's truck average is expected to rise by 1.1 mpg to 22.2 and its domestic car average by 0.6 to 28.8 mpg. GM's car and truck models are expected to rise less than 1 mpg to 29.6 for domestic cars and 22.5 for trucks.
Honda Motor Co. is calculated to post the highest average for cars at 39.9 mpg for its imported models, 33.7 for cars made in the U.S., followed closely by Toyota at 38.5 mpg for its imports and 31.7 for its U.S.-made models, both thanks to strong sales of hybrids.
The increases reflect two trends: better technology and changing habits of U.S. drivers. Part of the increase comes from continuing efforts by automakers to boost the mileage of their vehicles through a variety of technologies, from gasoline-electric hybrids to six-speed transmissions.
With fuel prices flirting around $3.00 a gallon, many vehicle buyers have shifted toward smaller, more efficient models. So far in 2007, smaller cars have won market share from larger cars, and car-based SUVs have taken share from larger trucks and pickups.
Sales of the Toyota Prius are up 86% this year, making it one of the Top 20 selling vehicles in the country. Sales of the Ford Explorer are down 23%, while sales of small SUVs are up 31%.
And part of the increase is due to the tougher standard for trucks imposed by the NHTSA, which hit 22.2 mpg this year and will rise to 23.5 mpg in 2010. The passenger car standard of 27.5 mpg dates to the introduction of fuel economy standards in 1975.
When Congress returns next week, it will pick up consideration of an energy bill that includes a standard of 35 mpg for all vehicles by 2020. The auto industry prefers a more flexible target of 32 to 35 mpg by 2022, saying the 35 mpg target is unworkable.
Friedman and other environmentalists maintain that automakers could improve fuel economy four percent a year, every year, if they used available technology wisely.
The result of the data "completely belies automakers' claims that they don't have the technology to raise fuel economy," he said. "They have a lot of time to put a lot more technology onboard."
But Detroit automakers have long maintained that consumers, not the government, would determine whether they could sell more efficient vehicles, and that a too-tough standard could cost manufacturers tens of billions of dollars.
Source: Detroit Free Press