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Much Needed Chill Pill: The Truth About 2016 CAFE Standards

Posted in Alt Fuels, auto industry, Cars, Emissions, Environment, General, Newsworthy by Nathan Redden | May 26th, 2009 | 1 Response |


We were all pissed when the 2016 CAFE standards were announced last week. What you don’t know is why Obama had the full support of all the automakers like this was some sort of bizarro world. What do they know that you don’t? The difference between CAFE standards and EPA standards.

CAFE, or the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, is only one way in which our government rates fuel efficiency. This is not necessarily a minimum, but an average fuel economy as defined by the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA). On the other hand you have the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You may recognize their fuel economy ratings on the window sticker of every new car. The announcement by President Obama is that both agencies will be cooperating on a uniform average at both the state and federal level to increase CAFE and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Here’s where the confusion comes in. Rather than mandate a specific CAFE goal, these agencies are backing into the numbers using a CO2 emissions target. The requirements are as such: vehicles sold in model year 2016 will have a fleet average CO2 emissions level of roughly 250 grams/mile. When you plug that figure into a computer and feed it peach schnapps, it barfs out 35.5 MPG as the resulting CAFE requirement. That’s 39 miles per gallon for passenger cars and 30 MPG for light trucks.

The only problem with this approach? Non-powertrain advancements in the reduction of CO2. With help from Credit Suisse, Jalopnik has latched onto a great loophole. With expected increases in air conditioner efficiency, we can expect less CO2 to be produced even given current engine technology. As it stands, an EPA rating of 29 MPG for passenger cars equals 39 MPG on the CAFE scale. An EPA rating of 23 MPG is all it takes for light trucks to hit the 29 MPG CAFE requirement.

And don’t forget, we’re talking a law of averages. CAFE and CO2 requirements will be different for each manufacturer based on how many cars and trucks they produce. On a smaller scale, each vehicle has it’s own “footprint” defined by the area measured between all four wheels. Vehicles with a larger footprint will have less stringent standards. This will benefit the domestic automakers greatly considering the number of large SUVs and trucks produced. It will also encourage designers to push wheels outward with wider tracks and smaller overhangs, a look that has become more popular regardless. Finally, credits will be offered on an annual basis for over-compliance. These credits can be carried forward and applied to future years. There may also be the possibility of transferring credits, or “super credits” for vehicles such as the Chevy Volt, within the fleet.

What does this mean for you? Well, a shift from CAFE standards of fuel economy to EPA standards would certainly help the auto makers hit their 2016 deadline. While only a handful of cars meet those CAFE requirements now, there are quite a few cars and trucks sold today that already meet the new EPA fuel economy numbers. And with decreases in CO2 emissions and the introduction of hybrid/electric vehicles to average things out, you won’t have to worry about there being no fast, exciting cars to buy. But don’t get all bitchy when your truck’s MPGs still won’t break out of the teens.

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One Response

  1. FLoScrudato says:

    Excellent. This is the first time I have seen a published explanation to consumers regarding the differences between the two cycle CAFE rating and the 5 cycle EPA label rating. Consumers need to know that it is highly unlikely that they will achieve the CAFE FE.