Changes to Fuel Economy Rules Could Mean More Expensive Road Trips

Family road trips are a summer tradition, and Americans are hitting the road in record numbers this year. AAA estimates that more than 37 million Americans drove 50 miles or more over the July 4th holiday — a new record — and almost 35 million took long road trips over the Memorial Day weekend. Labor Day weekend is expected to see a similarly high number of travelers, who Consumers Union predicts will travel more than 775 million miles and spend more than $80 million on gas for their trips.

That’s a lot of miles driven and a lot of gas burned. And thanks to improving fuel efficiency in today’s cars and trucks, families are going farther on each tank than ever before.

Indeed, fuel efficiency improvements have been a boon to consumers across the country. The average new vehicle efficiency has increased by more than 5 miles per gallon over the last decade. The federal fuel economy program has helped make this happen by encouraging greater innovation in new cars and trucks through gradual increases in efficiency targets. For households, this means saving money on gas every time they fill up — giving families the opportunity to enjoy more travel adventures or put the savings toward other household expenses.

With the existing standards in place, fuel efficiency is expected to improve even further. By 2025, households buying new vehicles can expect net savings of $3,200 per car and $4,800 per truck or SUV over the life of that vehicle. But if the standards are weakened, American families would lose out.

In recent months, policymakers in Washington have taken steps to lower existing efficiency goals. New leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have started processes that could roll back an historic agreement with the auto industry to nearly double fuel economy and cut pollution in half by 2025. And a bill recently introduced in the Senate would reduce efficiency targets – particularly for larger vehicles that have the most room for improvement. Families that buy larger vehicles like SUVs and minivans, and businesses that rely on trucks, would be hit the hardest, as the changes to the program could stall efficiency improvements in those vehicles.

Automakers have enjoyed record profits and sales in recent years as they produce more efficient vehicles, and yet they have asked federal regulators to weaken standards and are leading the push to pass the Senate bill. The auto industry’s coordinated effort to undermine the fuel economy program is counter to what consumers say they want and to what automakers agreed to do back in 2012. Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, found in a recent survey that almost 90 percent of Americans want automakers to continue to improve fuel economy for all vehicle types, and over 70 percent want government to continue to increase efficiency targets. A separate Consumer Reports analysis found a strong correlation between higher fuel efficiency and higher owner satisfaction.

The bottom line? Automaker innovation and cooperation have made vehicles safer, more reliable, and more efficient than ever before. But instead of continuing that trend, car companies want to leave holiday travelers with more pain at the pump. To lower travel costs for consumers, increase efficient vehicle choices, spur economic growth and encourage innovation in the auto industry, it pays to keep fuel economy standards strong.

David Friedman
is the director of cars and product policy for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports.

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