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Where will fuel consumption and economy be in 15 years -- and beyond?

        Auto | Fuel Economy

Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are nothing new. In fact, they've been around since the 1970s. And yes, even with CAFE standards in place, Chevrolet can still build the all-new 2014 Corvette Stingray.
Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are nothing new. In fact, they've been around since the 1970s. And yes, even with CAFE standards in place, Chevrolet can still build the all-new 2014 Corvette Stingray.
(© General Motors)

We're looking 15 years in the future, but for now, automakers and government officials have their sights set on a benchmark that falls just a little short of that -- the year 2025. The Obama Administration announced new fuel economy standards in August of 2012, with a benchmark of achieving 54.5 miles per gallon (23.2 kilometers per liter) by 2025. The new standards are estimated to save 12 billion barrels of oil, which translates to about $1.7 trillion in gasoline cost savings [source: The White House].

Enforcing these new rules is not nearly as simple as saying every vehicle needs to achieve 54.5 miles per gallon (23.2 kilometers per liter) -- it depends on complicated formulas based on the car's size and, in some cases, what other cars it sits next to at the dealerships (which sounds ridiculous, but some of the standards are, put as simply as possible, calculated across a manufacturer's entire lineup, then divided up and applied to each car). It's worth mentioning that Europe accomplishes fuel consumption reduction mainly by imposing really high taxes on fuel, which strongly encourages people to buy more efficient cars, which in turn inspires auto manufacturers to meet that demand. That's why small cars are so popular and prevalent across the Atlantic. The United States, however, has demonstrated a consistent preference for larger vehicles, even throughout several fuel crises, so the government believes that regulating supply is a better approach than manipulating demand.

Achieving these goals won't be easy, but it is possible. The new standards are actually an update to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards rolled out in 1979. Back then, it was just 18 miles per gallon (7.6 kilometers per liter), but we weren't too concerned about the environment or our petroleum sources just yet. CAFE standards are based on an average that must be calculated and applied across a manufacturer's model lineup, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates each car's mileage on its own, based on what the car can achieve in real-world conditions. CAFE is managed and enforced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). CAFE testing uses different procedures than the EPA, which yields results that are about 20 percent higher than real world conditions. In other words, the CAFE numbers tend to be unrealistically optimistic, whereas the EPA's ratings are a lot closer to what a real person might get in real-world driving conditions. Everyone involved is aware of these discrepancies, so it's kind of left unsaid that if CAFE testing isn't changed, it'll be a bit easier for car manufacturers to meet the new standards than it should be [source: Webster]. The new standards would be best enforced if the NHTSA and the EPA could work together, reducing confusion and eliminating loopholes. But those loopholes are, at least in part, what enables the standards to be met.

Manufacturers say that the new formulas will require designers to reduce weight as well as implement new fuel saving technology, whereas before, only one of those strategies was necessary to achieve the target for any given vehicle [source: Witzenburg]. Some manufacturers even assert that such standards are nearly impossible, and way too expensive, to achieve with existing technology. Regardless, the numbers have to be improved, and this is how it'll be done. The automakers are expected to achieve the ultimate goal in baby steps, since the CAFE standards are scheduled to increase 5 percent every year from 2017 to 2025. That gives them a few years to plan a strategy -- not all that long considering new cars are in the pipeline a few model years out. According to some schools of thought, there's a lot more to designing a fuel efficient car than simply wedging a fuel-efficient engine under the hood. That much might seem obvious, considering aerodynamics play such a huge role in fuel economy. That's just part of it, though. Some of the advanced technologies we've been hearing about -- and promised -- for years now will eventually play a huge role in achieving our fuel economy targets.

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