US vehicle fuel efficiency effectively stalled over the last 10 years
January 11, 2021
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The average car or light truck on US roads is 11.8 years old.
Enlarge / The average car or light truck on US roads is 11.8 years old.

The last few years have seen a rather bitter fight over vehicle pollution between the federal government and California, with automakers taking sides. In August 2012, during the Obama administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced new standards aiming to reach a target of 54.4mpg (4.3l/100km). But with the change of administration at the beginning of 2017 came a change in those priorities.

At the time, I described the new target as “pathetic.” But here’s the truly scary thing—as unambitious as it was, it would still represent a 50 percent increase in efficiency compared to the existing US light vehicle fleet. According to a new analysis at Green Car Congress, if you analyze the average miles driven per gallon of fuel each year, the US has made almost no progress between 2008-2019.

The Environmental Protection Agency versus California

Shortly after the beginning of the Trump administration, the EPA gave notice that it was less interested in cleaning up vehicle emissions. Additionally, the EPA called out California, which has a waiver that gives its California Air Resources Board the power to regulate air pollution from vehicles within the state’s borders. (Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington also participate in the so-called Zero Emissions Vehicle program, taking their lead from CARB.)

The EPA’s justification for making cars and trucks pollute more? It said improved fuel efficiency standards would result in more deaths on US roads because more efficient technologies would increase new vehicle prices, leading Americans to continue driving older, less safe cars and trucks. (Experts found this reasoning highly specious.)

At first, there was (sadly) widespread support for the EPA’s actions from automakers. But California has been challenging the EPA, and in 2019, BMW, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen all agreed voluntarily to commit to CARB’s plan to reduce vehicle emissions, (Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, and Toyota all continued to oppose plans to make vehicles more efficient.)

That same year, the EPA announced it wanted to revoke California’s ability to set its own pollution regulations and reportedly launched an antitrust investigation into the agreement between California and BMW/Ford/Honda/VW. (This didn’t go down terribly well in Congress.)

But in March 2020, the EPA published its new rules, settling on a much less ambitious 40.4mpg (5.8l/100kmg) as the goal by 2026. (Due to the way that these fuel efficiency numbers are arrived at, the real world efficiency would be approximately 40mpg under the older target but approximately 30mpg under the new one.)

What do the actual numbers say?

Researcher Michael Sivak has been compiling reports on the actual US car and light truck fleet for some years now, with a data set that goes back to 1966. (Before this time, light trucks were categorized with heavy trucks, not passenger cars.) From his data, we can see that the US fleet actually got less efficient between 1966-1973, then, in response to the oil crisis, the fleet efficiency increased from 12.9mpg (18.2l/100km) in 1973 to 19.6mpg (12l/100km). This remained effectively flat until 2004, increasing to 21.8mpg (10.8l/100km) by 2008, presumably in response to swiftly rising gasoline prices. By 2019, the number had risen by a mere 0.4mpg, a change of less than two percent in total, or 0.2mpg per year.

As Sivak notes, the biggest hurdle to solving the issue is the fact that there are many more older cars and trucks already on our roads. The US passenger car and light truck fleet totals 253.8 million vehicles, with an average age of 11.8 years. By contrast, just 17 million new vehicles sold in 2019.

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