Double Your Own Fuel Economy

Getting excited about the President’s fuel efficiency announcement

President Obama speaks to attendees at Friday’s announcement (Credit: Sarah Chieffo)

Average fuel economy in America today is about 26 miles per gallon (mpg) across all cars and light trucks (SUV’s, pickups, etc.).  The President announced  Friday a landmark agreement made with automakers, the United Auto Workers, and others like the state of California, on standards that would roughly double the fuel economy of new cars and light trucks to 54.5 mpg by 2025.  (The 54.5 includes some carbon pollution cuts that don’t translate into fuel savings, so the fuel-only number would be about 50 mpg).

This is big news for consumers and big news for health and the environment. It cuts oil use by the equivalent of all our imports from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, puts $80 billion a year back in our pockets to spend on better things than foreign oil, and cuts carbon pollution the equivalent amount as closing 72 coal-fired power plants.

So why do I keep hearing grumbling when I talk to friends about this? Many say something like:  “My car gets 40 mpg today, how come we can only get to 50?”

The answer: It’s an average – and a pretty impressive average at that.

Today, your 40 mpg car averages out your neighbor’s 17 mpg SUV, and the guy down the block with the pickup, to get to that fleet-wide 26 mpg average.

To get to 50 mpg – to double the average – you need- more or less – to double everyone’s fuel economy: the cars that are pushing the envelope and the ones dragging behind.

So if you get 40 mpg today – how about 80 mpg in 2025?  Not so bad, is it?

My friend Debbie* told me she gets 54.5 mpg today.  Debbie, how does 109 mpg sound?

Quite reasonable actually.  Debbie’d be a prime candidate to be driving an electric car in 2025. They easily deliver 100+ mpg and are predicted to be about as common in 2025 as hybrids like the Prius are today.

In 2025, Debbie’s 2010 Prius will be a clunker – with barely average fuel economy, yesterday’s battery chemistry, and boring styling.  But the hybrid technology that powers the Prius will have become ordinary and mainstream, not just in lots of sedans, but in larger vehicles – so that SUVs like your neighbor’s– the one that gets 17mpg today – can routinely hit 34 mpg.  Not mind-altering, but better than most cars get today, while still hauling 3 kids, ice-hockey equipment and the dog.  And your neighbor will also cut what their  family spends on gas in half (saving about $1,100 a year at today’s gas prices).

Chevy Volt (Credit: NRMA drivers seat/Flickr)

And you don’t need a crystal ball to see these standards drive change, all you have to do is go to an auto dealership.  We’re now in the first year of implementation of the 2012 – 2016 standards that raise fuel economy to 34.1 mpg by 2016, and we’re seeing an avalanche of innovation:  high-quality, highly-efficient, affordable, domestically-manufactured compact cars that are selling fast; a 25 percent increase in fuel economy in America’s number one selling pickup truck while it also throws on extra horsepower to burn; and electric vehicles from 3 different manufacturers (more soon) in dealerships now, just to mention a few.

And that’s just to get to 34 – how can 50 not be exciting?

*names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the fact that EPA thinks Debbie may be exaggerating slightly.  The Prius is rated 51 CITY, 48 HWY, for a combined 50 mpg, though some drivers may do better).