American automakers are losing the race to make more fuel-efficient vehicles

The US made record gains in fuel efficiency last year, but these still fall short of what is needed to meet fast-approaching deadlines. Thanks to their love for big vehicles, American automakers have fallen behind their competitors when it comes to getting more miles per gallon of gasoline.

According to the EPA’s latest Automotive Trends Report, real-world fuel economy increased slightly to 26 miles per gallon for the 2022 model year. That’s an increase of 0.6 mpg from the previous year, which the EPA says is apparently “more than double the annual fuel economy improvement” over the past nine years.

But while the agency celebrates the incremental improvement, there is still a long way to go to achieve the fuel efficiency standards the US has set for itself. By 2026, vehicles must average 49 miles per gallon. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) finalized that rule in 2022 and earlier this year proposed even higher standards for cars made between 2027 and 2032.

By 2026, vehicles must average 49 miles per gallon

That leaves a seemingly enormous gap between U.S. ambitions and current fuel efficiency. Fortunately, tracking progress isn’t as simple as comparing those goals to the data the EPA released in its report yesterday. Data on real world fuel economy, which the EPA evaluated, is typically lower than that compliance data – what is used in the NHTSA rules.

The estimated real-world data is measured using laboratory tests that better reflect road conditions and the way people drive. Actual fuel consumption figures are typically about 25 percent lower than official compliance data show, according to Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Transport Campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Taking that into account, automakers still need to make more progress if they want to reach 49 mpg in a few years. To meet that goal, fuel efficiency would need to increase 8 percent each year for the 2024-2025 model years.

American car companies – with the exception of Tesla – will have to work extra hard because they are lagging behind brands from other countries. Average fuel economy for Ford, General Motors and Jeep and Dodge parent company Stellantis ranged between about 21 mpg and 23 mpg last year. They lag behind foreign automakers like Hyundai and Honda, which top the list and have achieved about 29 mpg.

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There are clear culprits behind the inequality. The growing popularity of trucks and SUVs is driving down the fuel economy of American-made cars. This also has broader consequences for health and the environment.

Super-sized passenger cars use more fuel than smaller cars, which also means they produce more exhaust pollution, which worsens air quality and causes climate change. Larger electric vehicles are also problematic because they produce more particulate pollution from road and tire wear.

Fortunately, planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from new vehicles still fell 3 percent last year to a record low, the EPA reports. But trucks and SUVs managed to undo some of that progress.

“The long-term trend away from sedans/wagons toward vehicle types with lower fuel economy and higher CO2 emissions has offset some of the fleet-wide benefits that would otherwise have been achieved by the improvements within each vehicle type,” the EPA report says.

“American companies have been stupid and short-sighted,” says Becker. “They would rather continue selling gas guzzlers, where they make money, than switch to vehicles with advanced technology, which are the future.”

In addition to making electric vehicles, Becker points out that companies have been slow to adopt other fuel-saving technologies. Turbochargers can make cars more economical by, for example, using residual heat. But this technology only made its way into about 37 percent of 2022 model year vehicles from major manufacturers. Luxury car makers had the highest adoption, with turbocharging in almost all BMW vehicles and 90 percent of the Mercedes fleet by 2022. Stellantis had the lowest adoption rate at just 13 percent.

When it comes to meeting fuel efficiency targets, “all car companies have the technology to do this,” says Becker. “This is car mechanics, not rocket science.”

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