As the nation moves toward stricter fuel-efficiency standards for light-duty vehicles, many consumers might have concerns. Worries. Fears, even. Their unease might stem from assuming that one day their choices for a new car will run the gamut between gas-sipping compacts and whisper-quiet all-electrics.
Fuel Freedom is making the case that better fuel economy — and with it, reduced smog and greenhouse gases — doesn’t mean drivers will have less choice in the vehicles they drive. You can keep enjoying your pickup, SUV or crossover (in other words, the most popular vehicles on the road).
All we have to do is expand the availability of high-octane alcohol fuels like ethanol and methanol, which are cheaper and cleaner than gasoline.
“We’re convinced that the long-term potential of high-octane fuel is awesome,” Ford Motor Co. engineer Tom Leone said at the National Ethanol Conference earlier this year. “The primary benefits of higher-octane fuel would be societal in nature, in terms of CO2 reductions and reduced fuel consumption and reduced petroleum imports. These are societal goals, and it’s hard to imagine that market forces alone can get us there, so I think regulators have a role to play to help guide us toward that together.”
The focus on high-octane alcohol fuels is particularly relevant this year, as three government agencies are in the process of redrafting the nation’s fuel-economy standards for all vehicles sold in the U.S. The main goal of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards is to get the national fleet to 54.5 mpg by MY2025.
The CAFE standards are in the middle of a Midterm Evaluation (MTE), to see whether the program’s ambitious goals are within reach or whether some tweaks need to be made. A technical review being conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and California’s Air Resources Board is due out later this month. The public gets to weigh in, and the final rules are scheduled to be published in April 2018.
Low gas prices are the fly in the ointment for the process: Consumers have been choosing bigger vehicles, spurning smaller, fuel-efficient ones. When automakers and regulators hash out the details of the next CAFE targets, consumer taste will be a big factor.
“Safety, and preserving consumer choice, are two things that are fundamental to CAFE, and they work very hard to ensure that both of those are preserved,” said Robin Vercruse, Fuel Freedom’s Vice President of Policy and Environment.
Getting to 54.5 mpg by 2025 sounds like a stretch, but the real-world number — the one you would see on the window stickers of a new car in the showroom — is expected to be somewhere closer to 40 mpg.
The 54.5 figure includes a variety of credits that automakers receive for innovations that boost fuel economy and reduce emissions. As this Chicago Tribune explainer notes, the biggest credit — worth 4-5 mpg — “will come from automakers using more ‘climate-friendly’ refrigerants in air conditioning units.” Makers also get credits for “lightweighting” (shedding pounds from vehicles, as Ford did with its new aluminum-body F-series).
Electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are worth prized credits to boost automakers’ fleet-wide mpg. But makers have to be able to sell them to the public for the credits to take effect; simply investing the money into research, design and production isn’t enough.
“Meeting 54.5 miles per gallon is not just one thing; it’s a whole series of different actions,” Leone said. “It’s aluminum pickup trucks and power trains and aerodynamics and tires and everything. So we’re going to get there somehow, whether higher octane fuel can play a role or not is to be determined.
“One of the big advantages of changing the fuel supply is that you can make improvements in real-world CO2 and fuel consumption much faster than through the CAFE mechanism where you’re only effecting the new vehicles sold each year, which are small fraction of all the vehicles on the road. If you change the fuel supply, all the vehicles can benefit to some degree.”
Alcohol fuels can have an impact — in the high-tech cars and trucks of the future, and the ones we drive now.
- What are CAFE standards, and why do they matter?
- Why do we think high-octane fuel is only for luxury cars?
- Is reaching 54.5 mpg even realistic?
- UCSB’s experience shows feds listen on fuel-economy rules