Given the timing, car enthusiasts were probably hoping it was an April Fool's Day prank, but it's really no laughing matter. On the first of this month, the White House officially announced its benchmark for the 2016 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations, which will require automakers' fleets to achieve an average of 35.5 mpg.
On the plus side, the government expects the new rule to "potentially save the average buyer of a 2016 model year car $3,000 over the life of the vehicle and, nationally, will conserve about 1.8 billion of oil and reduce nearly a billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the lives of the vehicles covered."
On the other hand, the only vehicles currently capable of reaching that standard are the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Mercury Milan Hybrid, Toyota Prius, Honda Insight and Honda Civic Hybrid. You could also toss the Volkswagen Golf and Volkswagen Jetta diesels into the mix, as they can get a combined 34 mpg and, technically, the new fuel economy rules target 34.1 mpg, with the extra 1.4 mpg in efficiency to come from improvements to vehicles' air-conditioning systems and whatnot.
But even though the automotive landscape will obviously be a far different place in 2016 than it is today, most automakers seem surprisingly okay with the situation. According to a report in the "Detroit Free Press," the major automakers are all on-board, believing the new rules are better than the likely alternative'”differing standards in different states.
Plus, the cost to the industry to achieve compliance'”something over $50 billion'”is chump change when you remember that Chrysler and General Motors alone received more than this amount in government anti-bankruptcy loans. As for the cost to consumers, the Obama administration's motoring mavens believe this will add only about $1,000 to the price of a 2016 vehicle.
But that's just the monetary cost. It will be much harder to put a sticker price on the mental pain and suffering incurred by consumers who will no longer be able to drive vehicles ranging from a Ford F-150 to a Chevrolet Camaro to a Toyota Camry, at least not in their current formats.
Now, certainly there will be loopholes, some likely big enough to drive a full-size pickup through, others about the size of a Porsche 911. But the mainstream automakers aren't going to be able to rely on legal technicalities and the like entirely, and the current premium paid for hybrids and electric vehicles'”well over the government's expected $1,000 price bump for 2016 consumers'”makes me wonder exactly how the auto companies think they're going to get the job done here.
Advances to gasoline engines are coming fast and furious (see Ford's EcoBoost, Fiat/Chrysler's MultiAir, etc., etc.) but even the double-digit fuel-economy gains provided by these powerplants aren't going to accomplish the government's goals by 2016.
The Blue Oval is going to start offering an EcoBoost four-cylinder engine in the Ford Edge, for example, and that should give the crossover best-in-class fuel efficiency. But it won't give the Edge the kind of the numbers it needs to be a success in 2016.
Constantly improving clean diesels are a better option, as they provide improved fuel economy and fewer emissions compared to their gasoline-driven counterparts, while some even best the hybrids. If the top global automakers simply brought their European diesel products over to the U.S. en masse, that would go a long way to helping the cause.
Take GM's Opel Insignia. Introduced in Europe at the end of 2008, the car rides on the same platform that's expected to show up underneath the next-generation Chevrolet Malibu and coming Buick Regal. And in its most fuel-efficient setup, the Insignia can get a combined 54.7 mpg in European testing, a number that would look just fine for the 2016 Malibu.
But frankly, I wonder if even the prospect of saving the planet is enough to get U.S. customers to overcome their distaste for diesels.
Of course, there is another option, and it merely requires that we strap on our tinfoil hats and dial up 1-800-CONSPIRACY THEORY: Could it be that the reason automakers are so blasÃ© about the 2016 CAFE standards is because they already know how to make engines that run on water, and they've been in collusion with the oil companies to hide it from us?
I'll guess we'll find out in a year or six.