New Auto Standards vs. Old U.S. Preferences

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The cars of the near future will be lighter, more expensive and maybe smaller. Big engines will shrink. And more and more cars will be hybrids or diesel-powered vehicles like those common in Europe.

Those aren't qualities that American consumers have rushed to embrace in the past. But the new fuel-efficiency and tailpipe-emissions standards unveiled yesterday at the White House will push automakers and motorists in a direction aimed at reducing U.S. oil dependence and the emissions of greenhouse gases, just part of the administration's program for remaking the ailing American car industry.

Many analysts worry that without boosting gasoline taxes to make fuel efficiency a priority for consumers, the administration may be setting a standard for new cars that won't match motorists' tastes.

"There's a general rule of thumb: The way to achieve higher fuel efficiency is to make cars lighter and put in smaller engines," said Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of, an automotive information firm. "In some ways, it's formulaic. Unfortunately, those tend to be the cars people don't want to buy."

But automobile manufacturers, two of which are already relying on U.S. government aid to avert bankruptcy, said yesterday that they welcomed the new "harmonized" national standards for fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions. While meeting the targets for 2016 might be challenging, they said it would be easier than dealing with a "patchwork" of regulations that differed from California to the Transportation Department to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"What was so important for us was we had so many different regulations, testing procedures and classes of what we sell," said Susan M. Cischke, group vice president for sustainability, environment and safety engineering at Ford. "It was a huge amount of work just to certify the vehicles. The national standard gives us the certainty and flexibility we need to meet these tough targets."

Carmakers and administration officials said that the technology for building more fuel-efficient vehicles already exists, but they acknowledge that it will cost money.

James Lentz, president of U.S. sales for Toyota, said that eventually consumers would take fuel efficiency for granted the way they now expect cars to have air bags or stabilizers or anti-lock brakes, innovations once considered expensive.

"It's just a question of time and money," he said. A senior administration official said on Monday that the new standards would add $600 to the price of the average car, on top of the $700 of added costs that would have resulted from more modestly increased targets permitted under the 2007 energy bill.

"Yes, it costs money to develop these vehicles," President Obama said yesterday in a Rose Garden ceremony that included governors, members of Congress, auto executives and the head of the United Auto Workers. "But even as the price to build these cars and trucks goes up, the cost of driving these vehicles will go down as drivers save money at the pump."

The president asserted that the typical driver would save about $2,800 by getting better gas mileage and that higher purchase costs would be paid off within three years. But payback periods will vary widely depending on the type of vehicle and the price of gasoline, industry experts said, and some highly efficient vehicles might never pay off.

Hardly any cars on the road in the United States today meet the new standard -- 39 miles a gallon for passenger cars and about 30 for light trucks -- and virtually all are hybrids. Several small cars are within striking distance, and by averaging hybrids and traditional combustion engines, automakers could meet overall targets even if certain models fall short.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company