What a Real Standard on Fuel Economy Looks Like

Brian Fung

From the National Academy of Sciences comes a heartening report: By 2050, improvements to cars and light trucks could reduce the country’s auto emissions by 80 percent. That’s a pretty lofty goal. Can we hit it?

First, the promising news. In recent years, fuel economy has gotten much better. People are buying fewer SUVs, more sedans, and more hybrids—even if some of those hybrids are being built as inefficient SUVs. Here’s the production breakdown according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest figures (PDF):

Despite a brief uptick in SUV production in 2010, car companies are making fewer of them again. If EPA’s projections hold, then the number of SUVs on the road by model-year's end will be at its second-lowest since 1993.

But consider U.S. fuel economy in the context of the academy’s ambitious target. President Bush updated efficiency standards in 2008, bringing the country’s rules on fuel economy to 35 miles per gallon. Last year, President Obama updated those CAFE standards once again, setting a target for manufacturers of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

That sounds like a lot. But, according to the report, to get to an 80 percent reduction in auto emissions by 2050 using today’s technology, you’d need average, real-world gas mileage to be 180 miles a gallon—7.5 times what it is today, and three times Obama's actual target.

Researchers are working on better batteries for hydrogen fuel cells, and electric cars are becoming more common, too. Improvements in technology are going to enable leaps in capacity. But they still can’t come soon enough.