In the green car world — especially among electric car fans — Chris Paine’s critically-acclaimed 2006 documentary film Who Killed The Electric Car? has achieved something of a cult status among electric car drivers new and old alike. It tells of the tragic and untimely demise of General Motors EV1, a revolutionary two seat electric car produced under duress by GM at the turn of the last century to satisfy California’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandates. A car which was then brutally taken back from happy, lease customers along with cars like the Toyota RAV4 EV and Ford Ranger EV after companies like GM, Toyota, Ford, Nissan and others successfully lobbied the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to scrap its ZEV mandate.
Despite the pleas of those willing to buy the cars outright and keep them on the road — not to mention the massive wait list — every automaker maintained that nobody wanted to buy a fuel efficient, zero emission electric car. It was those claims which caused such an outrage among electric car owners, sullying those names forever in the minds of hardened electric car campaigners like the late Doug Korthof, who continued his protest against GM (and the car he called the “Chevy Volt Hoax”) up until his death in early 2012.
Even today, we’ve become used to the idea that electric cars never took off at the turn of the century because automakers didn’t want them to succeed. Indeed, there are few days that don’t go by when we don’t hear someone — usually a Tesla fan — berating mainstream automakers for not bothering to make or sell sexy, affordable, long-range electric cars.
With the upcoming 200+ mile 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, next-generation long-range Nissan LEAF and 2018 Tesla Model 3 electric cars waiting in the wings, the days of making that specific allegation may be soon behind us. But while electric and fuel efficient cars are far more affordable, far more common and far more popular with car buyers than they once were, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NHTSA and CARB have just declared that the U.S. auto industry will miss its hope-for 2025 model year Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) targets by a wide margin, not because of a lack of technological capability but a lack of buyer interest.
Simply put, as hard as car makers are working hard to meet the 54.5 mpg CAFE standards set for 2025, car buyers are doing the exact opposite, using cheap gasoline as an excuse to buy the largest, most heavily-polluting vehicles they can. Since CAFE figures are calculated by averaging the mean fuel economy of all light duty vehicles sold by an automaker, it doesn’t matter if an automaker sells high numbers of plug-in cars or hybrids: if it sells a larger number of gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups, its corporate fuel economy gets dragged down.
And that’s bad for our environment, our communities, and the auto industry, which has invested billions of dollars in recent years on alternative fuels.
The two agencies made their joint evaluation in a mid-term evaluation report of light-duty vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards for model years 2022 thru 2025, which was published this morning. The report — a regulatory commitment made by the EPA when it established model year 2017 thru 2025 light duty vehicle emissions standards — shows that while automakers are adopting advanced alternative fuel and emissions reduction technologies at an unprecedented rate, buyers are stubbornly opting large SUVs and pickup trucks over more economic models.
While the Draft Technical Assessment Report accompanying the mid-term evaluation states clearly that the EPA, NHTSA and CARB believe that the 2025 standards “can be met largely with more efficient gasoline powered cars” and “only modest penetration of hybrids and only low levels of electric vehicles,” it reports that low gas prices mean that fuel economy is less of a concern for car buyers than it was just a few years ago. When gas is under $2.20 per gallon, less than half the price it was less than four years ago, consumers don’t worry so much about driving a car that gets 20 miles per gallon rather than 40 miles per gallon.
Indeed, last month, the average fuel economy for new light-duty vehicles (that’s passenger cars and pickup trucks with a payload capacity of less than 4,000 pounds) sold in the U.S. dropped to 25.3 mpg. And while that’s still better than the 22.4 mpg average for new cars in 2011, it’s a long way away from the 54.5 mpg target set for just nine years’ time.
Unlike the story laid out in Who Killed The Electric Car however, the EPA and its fellow report author agencies say this time the automakers aren’t to blame.
“[Automakers are] adopting fuel economy technologies at unprecedented rates,” the report says. “Car makers and suppliers have developed far more innovative technologies to improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions than anticipated just a few years ago,” it continues, adding that the majority of automakers have been able to meet current standards with either the same or less costs than they had predicted back in 2012.
Yet when the EPA, CARB and NHTSA set the targets back in 2012 for 2017 thru 2025, they believed future vehicle fleets would be a little more biased towards cars, estimating that 67 percent of all vehicles sold by automakers would be cars and 33 percent would be SUVs, pickup trucks and crossovers. That estimate has proven woefully inaccurate. Based on current vehicle mix, the best we can hope for when it comes to CAFE figures, say the agencies, is between 50 mpg and 52.6 mpg by 2025.
While the EPA, NHTSA and CARB say that car buyers and low gas prices are primarily to blame for the lowering of fuel economies, automakers are certainly not without fault. Indeed, take a look at any major automaker’s finance deals and sales events, and you’ll find fuel efficient models and zero emission vehicles at the bottom of the incentive deal pile.
In recent months, we’ve seen pretty much every automaker in the U.S. advertise massive cash-on-hood deals and low finance offers for every concievable model of pickup truck, SUV or family sedan. Plug-in cars and hybrids however, are almost entirely absent from such adverts and while finance offers are often available on these models, they’re not marketed anywhere near as aggressively.
And that raises a very simple question: what will it take for automakers and consumers to stop their love affair with large, gas-guzzlers?
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