There have been two competing car narratives happening recently. A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported on how improvements in overall fuel economy have stalled, not surprisingly since the price of gasoline has dropped to $2 per gallon.
In 2009, President Barack Obama, with support from the auto industry, called for an increase in fuel efficiency from 23 mpg in trucks to 30 mpg by 2016, and from 27.5 mpg to 39 mpg for cars, for an overall average of 35.5 mpg. Auto companies were pleased to have the certainty of the standard across all 50 states and endorsed the plan.
In 2011, the Obama administration extended the improvements in fuel efficiency to the year 2025, at which time he called for an average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg. Again, automakers representing 90% of all cars and trucks sold signed on to the plan.
A review of these standards is happening this summer, and now some car companies are hoping to loosen or weaken the standards. One of the reasons is that the price of gas is cheap right now.
When gas prices were $4 per gallon, lots of car buyers placed fuel efficiency high on their lists of desired features, and car companies anticipated rapid adoption of fuel-efficient small cars, hybrids, and electric vehicles. Yet many of these cars came with other trade-offs. Some, like the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf, had unusual shapes compared to traditional cars. The Chevy Volt only seats four; in the Ford C-Max Energi, which I drive, some of the cargo space is taken up by the extra battery.
While those who drive them love them, buying an alt-fuel vehicle can sometimes take a leap of faith for those used to trading in their old Chevy Silverados for new ones. And let’s face it, when gas is cheap, we Americans like to buy big, powerful vehicles with lots of electronic gizmos (it can parallel park all by itself!) or more cupholders (15!).
Henrik Fisker, who helped design the Tesla S and then designed his eponymous Fisker Karma, wanted to show that “electric cars can be beautiful and exciting and fun to drive.” He knew that for electric vehicles and more fuel-efficient vehicles to really be successful, we needed more choices.
Luckily, the second important story is that, judging from the recent New York International Auto Show, electric cars (and trucks) are becoming bigger, faster and cheaper to help fill the demand for a range of options.
Mitsubishi is introducing its Outlander as a more mainstream brand plug-in hybrid. And Chrysler is offering the 2017 Pacifica, a plug-in minivan with 30 miles of all-electric range and the equivalent of 80 mpg overall when paired with its gasoline engine.
With more electric cars on the road, we can dramatically improve overall fuel efficiency, significantly lower our demand for oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Lost in that sustainability noise is the fact that electric motors provide very fast acceleration. That’s why Porsche is installing more and more electric motors in their cars — it’s for speed!
What about for the rest of us?
A number of companies have started implementing start-stop technology, and it really works! A study by Edmunds.com looked at three cars and found a roughly 10 percent improvement in fuel efficiency in cars that had start-stop technology. We have also been tracking new companies like Voyomotive that can help normal cars get this added benefit.
It’s an exciting time, and we shouldn’t be running away from the important goals of improving fuel efficiency. If anything, we should use the opportunity of temporarily low oil prices to double down on new technologies. Let’s keep the automobile manufacturers’ feet to the fire and track toward a more sustainable America.