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Green Wheels: Americans going easy on the gas

For the first six months of 2012, the average gasoline consumption of new cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. was the lowest ever for a six-month period.

Published August 10, 2012

Here’s positive news on the fuel-efficiency front.

For the first six months of this year, the average gasoline consumption of new cars and light trucks sold in the United States was the lowest ever for any half-year period.

The average vehicle guzzled about 9.9 litres per 100 kilometres, compared with 10.4 a year earlier.

The figures will keep improving if increasingly tough fuel-consumption limits come into force in the U.S. and Canada by 2016, followed by further tightening over the next eight years that’s been negotiated between the U.S. government, carmakers and unions.

Next week, I’ll elaborate on that “if,” which has much to do with the U.S. presidential election. But for now, assume the rules will stick.

(The numbers here are converted into metric. I haven’t seen comparable Canadian data, but our regulations match theirs and there’s no reason to think trends differ here.)

Although riddled with loopholes, mainly lower standards for larger cars and pickup trucks, the regulations force manufacturers to make less-thirsty vehicles. That’s crucial if, as most experts agree, internal combustion still dominates the market for years to come.

By 2016, cars must be, on average, 37 per cent more efficient than last year’s. Those with the smallest footprint — width multiplied by wheelbase — are to hit 5.7 litres per 100 km. Trucks must be 23 per cent better; those with the biggest footprint must achieve 7.6 L/100 km.

For the two categories, combined, the average must improve to 6.9. For 2025, the proposed average drops to about 4.7.

Accept that some fiddling will occur. Accept also that these numbers, based on laboratory tests, exceed real-world driving. What’s important is the direction.

Buyer preference will impact the final results. But because the average must drop, consumption will improve no matter what vehicles roll from showrooms.

Obviously, if every buyer opted for a Honda Fit or equivalent — the smallest footprint category — fuel efficiency would far exceed the required average.

Two new reports suggest that won’t occur.

In the 1970s oil-price shock, buyers had to choose between cramped (and many thought unsafe) fuel sippers or bigger, more comfortable guzzlers. Most opted for the latter.

They continue to generally make the same choice; purchasing vehicles on the larger side of compact, with trucks maintaining their share of sales.

But history isn’t likely to repeat itself: During the past three decades, with no new standards, the preference for more size, power and accessories negated efficiency gains achieved by car engineers. Now, though, with the tougher regulations, absolute fuel consumption must drop. It won’t fall as far or as fast as if consumers moved en masse to the smallest vehicles, but it will decline.

“Thanks to a bumper crop of fuel-efficient models in the most-popular segments, consumers don’t have to choose between fuel efficiency and performance,” say Michigan-based auto analysts Baum and Associates in a recent commentary. “No matter what type of vehicle you want . . . carmakers are now upping fuel efficiency performance across the board.”

A national survey conducted in May for the Consumer Federation of America suggests substantial support for the fuel-consumption targets. As well, among the 1,000 respondents, those planning to buy new cars within five years expect they’ll consume 2.2 litres less per 100 km than with their current vehicle.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency divides vehicles into 10 fuel-consumption classes. In 2002, more than half of those sold were in the four highest-guzzling classes, with just 16 per cent among the four top-efficiency levels. This year, 31 per cent are among the guzzlers and 36 per cent are from the sippers.

Of course, the record could be better. And North American standards, current and proposed, still lag Europe, Japan and China.

Still, that’s an impressive change in a decade, with more to come.

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