washingtonpost.com
New Auto Standards vs. Old U.S. Preferences
Mileage Rules To Add to Price, Shrink Engines

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 Edmunds.com, 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.

Lentz said that Toyota passenger cars already average just three miles a gallon less than the target the Obama administration set yesterday for new 2016 cars. "I'm fairly comfortable on the passenger-car side," he said. "The challenge for us will be light trucks. Their average now is 24 miles per gallon, and the number to get to is going to be 30. So there is a lot of work to be done on the light trucks."

Like other automakers, Toyota is already trying to close the gap. The new Toyota Tundra has a 4.6-liter V-8 engine and a six-speed transmission; the previous model had a 4.7-liter V-8 engine and a five-speed. The new model gets 15 miles a gallon in the city and 20 on the highway, while the earlier model got 14 miles per gallon in the city and 17 on the highway.

Ford, whose Hybrid Escape is one of a handful of vehicles on the road today that already meet the 2016 standards, yesterday announced that it had started production of new EcoBoost engines at a Cleveland plant that had been idled in 2007 and that Ford spent $55 million retooling. The new engines combine turbo-charging with direct gasoline injection to deliver up to 20 percent improved fuel economy and 15 percent less carbon dioxide emissions while preserving the performance of larger engines, Ford said. The company said it would deliver "the power of a V-8 with the fuel economy of a V-6."

The new 3.5-liter engines would debut this summer in the 2010 Lincoln MKS, Lincoln MKT, Ford Taurus SHO and Ford Flex, Ford said. A V-6 EcoBoost engine will be available for the F-150 pickup truck in 2010, the company said.

The fuel-efficiency standards will be applied to different classes of vehicles based on size but will still include broader fleet targets. Every category and size will be required to make improvements. Different manufacturers will end up with different targets, and some high-efficiency vehicles, such as hybrids and electric vehicles, could ease the pressure on other models. But the system is designed to make it harder for automakers to sidestep requirements as they did a decade ago by making more light trucks, which have lower standards than passenger cars.

Ford's Cischke said that companies can also get credit by cutting leaks of greenhouse gases from air conditioners, but the offset against mileage requirements would be less than 1 mile per gallon.

Edmunds.com's Anwyl was skeptical about whether motorists would be happy with the new world of automobiles. "Consumers' natural preference is to buy bigger, more comfortable vehicles," he said. But he added that carmakers know how to reach the new standards. "There's no magic to this," he said. "It basically boils down to physics."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company