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Will new fuel standards mean bigger vehicles?

As an industry dependent on selling products that are towed behind cars, SUVs and light trucks, we’ve long been concerned about increasing CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards and the likely result that vehicles will be made lighter with reduced safe towing capacity.

Those concerns were escalated when the Obama administration announced doubling the current 27.3 mpg CAFÉ standard by 5 percent per year to a shocking 54.5 mpg by 2025. A guaranteed prescription for much lighter vehicles ahead, right? Perhaps not. In fact, vehicles may get bigger because of two things: consumer demand and an unheralded twist in the rules.

That’s the unique conclusion of a study reported by the University of Michigan’s News Service for its College of Engineering. CAFÉ will likely lead to bigger vehicles, more light trucks and SUVs!

The study examined market surveys of what vehicle buyers want and determined drivers prefer larger vehicles for the room, comfort and safety. Recognizing auto makers will build what buyers want, the study combined an examination of the formula used to establish target mpg and bingo – there is the loophole.

In actuality, it’s the formula for setting mpg that is also the loophole. The numbers cited as the CAFÉ standard are just averages. It really works this way: Each manufacturer must meet a CAFÉ standard based on the “footprint” of the vehicles they build. (The “footprint” is determined by  multiplying a vehicle‘s track width by its wheel base). Therefore, every carmaker is allowed to meet a different standard. That’s because prior to 2007, the CAFÉ standard was the same for every carmaker, but it put some key manufacturers at a big disadvantage. So an attempt was made to level the playing field between those building everything from small cars to big SUVs and pickup trucks, and those manufacturers that build only small, economical cars. After all, the latter could easily meet CAFÉ standards the big makers would be hard pressed to reach. The result was the “footprint” provision that allows larger cars and light trucks that cross predetermined length-by-wide points to meet lower CAFÉ standards.

It certainly draws interest, if not a grin, that while there’s a big push for higher CAFÉ standards, auto makers can circumnavigate the fuel efficiency requirements by increasing a vehicle’s footprint. Does it mean larger vehicles with better towing characteristics and safety are in our future? I don’t know. But the good news is the possibility is both real and encouraging, particularly in light of the striking increase to 54.5 mpg demanded by the administration.


4 comments on “Will new fuel standards mean bigger vehicles?

  1. enginecom

    From my research there is a two fold response. Large SUVs must go plug in hybrid diesel. The calculation takes into account percentage use on electric and fuel. The combined mpg is usually twice that of fuel so what gets 18mpg today will calculate to 36 mpg. This will reduce CAFE contribution than the present levels. The other effect is small cars will also go either CNG or diesel hybrid. This will offset CAFE even more. The small cars will also have to be built of carbon fiber to reduce weight. The only alternative for towing is going to be exemptions for commercial vehicles over 8800 GVW which covers current 2500 series pickups. Market forces will dictate what people buy and I doubt the target mpg will every be attained as future presidents will waive the messes OBAMA orovides.

  2. Mark Mowl

    I think boaters will adapt as they have in the past, and society will adapt as well.
    Rather than replace my truck with a new one, I kept it, and bought a new highly efficent car for daily commute duties. The truck is reserved for towing, “truck stuff”, and travel when I need a lot of space.
    My fuel bills are less than half of what they were, and the cost of the replacement cars is much less than the truck.

    I see many customers doing the same thing. Even one vendor (electronics sales and install) replaced most of his fleet of 3/4 trucks and vans with little Scion box thingies. Cost of vehicles 1/2, cost of fuel less than 1/2, and the employees actually liked them better.

    If fuel stays high long enough I think we may go back to when people bought trucks based on need, and not style.

  3. Trooper Adam

    You write: “Does it mean larger vehicles with better towing characteristics and safety are in our future? I don’t know. But the good news is the possibility is both real and encouraging, particularly in light of the striking increase to 54.5 mpg demanded by the administration.”

    Good news? Doesn’t sound good to me.

    It’s pretty hard to share the planet with people who still think and act as though bigger is inevitably better …

    who can see nothing wrong with burning in one century the lion’s share of a unique and irreplaceable resource: namely oil which took millennia to accumulate….

    and who unrepentantly hold that their narrow self interests trump everything else, up to and including the survival of the species.

    America the ungovernable, is what it looks like from here.

  4. Gerald W. Lester

    Trooper Adam wrote “a unique and irreplaceable resource: namely oil” needs to study reality and history and stop reading propaganda. Oil has been able to be synthesized for almost 100 years. In fact, during WWII almost all of Germany’s gasoline and oil were synthetic since the Allied powers denied them access to most of crude oil fields.

    See:, and their linked articles.

    Also known fossil fuel reserves, not even counting coal, have increased over the last 30 years.

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