Three decades ago, the country launched and then completed a successful effort to boost the fuel-efficiency of cars and trucks. Then, the concept waned, even as early warnings of high costs gave way to a consensus about the wisdom of taking such a step. Now the Obama White House has given the idea new momentum. A week ago, the administration unveiled final plans to require automakers to meet an average fuel economy standard of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
That represents a marked leap from the current 29 miles per gallon. What should be stressed is that the advance long has been in the works. The administration already had established an interim standard of 35.5 mpg by 2016. In setting the ambitious schedule, officials sat down with automakers, engaging in hard negotiations to address concerns and ultimately winning their participation.
One reasonable concession achieved by the companies involves a mid-program review, at the end of the decade, taking the measure of the plan and making adjustments, if necessary. In that way, the administration has demonstrated the flexibility many critics contend it resists.
No question, the implementation will result in higher costs, as new technologies are applied. Worth stressing are the greater benefits. Projections are the country will reduce oil consumption by roughly 3 million barrels per day, or the amount imported today from the Persian Gulf and Venezuela. Consumers will spend less time at the pump, saving as much as $8,000 during the life of a 2025 model car. For Ohioans, the estimated savings have been put at $2.7 billion by 2030, or $1.2 billion more than the additional cost.
If the standards promise to reduce the country’s consumption on foreign oil, they also amount to its most aggressive attempt ever to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the culprit in climate change. Transportation accounts for one-third of the country’s greenhouse emissions. The estimate is, the standards, once fully implemented, would lower greenhouse emissions by the equivalent of shutting down 65 coal-fired power plants.
Much of the improvement will be achieved through technological advances, whether in the design or engineering of vehicles. Some automakers (Nissan, for instance) are expected to pursue in a bigger way cars powered by electricity. Whatever the course, the economic benefit comes in the pursuit of innovation, adding investment, upgrading the country’s competitiveness.
The National Resources Defense Council recently released a report, “Driving Growth,” that reinforces the thinking about an auto industry gaining from the emergence of new technologies. The potential can be found at the new Timken Engineered Surfaces Laboratory at the University of Akron, exploring such things as improved coatings and stronger yet lighter materials. The fuel-efficiency standards represent a welcome challenge to the industry and the country, one that has the potential for an array of rewards, environmental and economic, if it is met.