What are the CAFE standards, and why do they matter?

In simplest terms, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are where national security meets cleaner air.

Initially focused on reducing our nation’s petroleum use in the wake of the oil crisis of the 1970s, coupled with tailpipe emissions standards, the CAFE standards have since become the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most significant achievement in improving air quality.

I should note at the outset that, just as the advertised miles per gallon differs when you actually drive your car or truck, CAFE standards are different than the mpg stickers you see on car lots. That’s because the standards are measured by different standardized tests and guidelines. However, the trend is the same: Higher CAFE standards mean more miles per gallon on the road.

In their current form, the CAFE standards are a collaboration between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the EPA. CAFE standards require each auto manufacturer to produce a variety of cars and trucks that, together, average a set minimum number of miles per gallon. The average mpg has steadily increased as automotive technology has improved since CAFE was created by Congress in 1975. Larger vehicles like trucks and SUVs have steadily improved over the years (some dramatically, thanks to advances in engine technology), yet they still have lower fuel economy overall. U.S. automakers like Ford and GM sell a LOT of these bigger vehicles, which many Americans prefer. But they also sell smaller, more efficient commuter cars that boost the mpg average overall. These days electric vehicles, which use much less gasoline, or in some cases none at all, also help bring up that average.

The bottom line is that CAFE standards intentionally make way for the wide variety of vehicles that Americans like — or need — to drive.

The CAFE standards provide big benefits to all Americans, by decreasing the use of fuel per vehicle to reduce oil imports from despots and funders of terrorism, and, with the help of emissions standards, by reducing climate-warming gases and the toxic, cancerous and smog-forming pollutants in the air we breathe. But that’s not all. For consumers, CAFE standards reduce the cost of driving. More miles per gallon means miles per dollar, and that’s good for our wallets.

All these benefits explain why CAFE standards have been supported across the political spectrum.

CAFE standards are, in general, established a few years in advance for a four-year period. This advance notice allows automakers the time to plan, design and bring to market a mix of vehicles to both satisfy consumers and meet the standards. However, recognizing that continued progress in increasing overall fuel economy becomes more and more challenging to move vehicle technology forward, in 2012 EPA and NHTSA provided even greater lead time for future fuel economy standards — all the way out to year 2025. The longer advance notice could provide better guidance to auto companies as they develop and prepare to introduce advanced technologies for cars and trucks to use less and less fuel. The ambitious final CAFE target was set at an average of 54.5 mpg, which was set for 2025. That might sound like a long time from now, but in vehicle research and development terms, it’s close to light speed.

While providing the fuel-economy end goal to automakers was intended to be helpful for setting expectations and R&D planning, the standards were based on a number of assumptions about fuel economics and the future pace of innovation. Since it’s easy to miss on such long-term projections, the agencies also planned for a “reality check” of the long-term CAFE standards, about halfway to the final four-year period of the projections — model years 2022-2025.

This reality check — formally known as the Midterm Evaluation — is now upon us. The process kicks off with a technical assessment, to be published later this year, and which will be open for public comment.

What could emerge from this Midterm Evaluation? Will the unexpected plunge in oil (and gasoline) prices over the past year and a half result in the standards being weakened? Or will the advances in fuel and engine technology encourage making the standards even stricter?

The CAFE standards are one of the most important tools available to us to reduce air pollution, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. The program presents a rare opportunity for anyone who cares about progress to have a voice in how long-term policy is created.

That’s why you’ll be hearing a lot more about this from us very soon.