Federal Government Sets New Light Truck Fuel Economy Standards

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced on March 29 new fuel economy standards for light trucks that officials said will save 10.7 billions of gallons of fuel and include, for the first time ever, the largest sport utility vehicles. The new standards were met with criticism from environmental groups, which stated that the administration squandered an important opportunity to treat American's oil addiction.

This final rule, issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), reforms the structure of the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) program for light trucks and establishes higher CAFE standards for model year (MY) 2008-2011 light trucks.

"The new standards represent the most ambitious fuel economy goals for light trucks ever developed in the program's twenty-seven year history," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said. "And more importantly, they close loopholes that have long plagued the current system."

Mineta said the new rules save two billion more gallons of fuel than an earlier proposal released in August, 2005 by including the largest SUVs and strengthening the final miles per gallon target. The new standards also set individual miles-per-gallon goals for all passenger trucks sold in the United States, requiring manufacturers to install fuel saving technology on all passenger trucks.

In addition, the light truck fuel economy standards will save more than 250 million gallons a year just by including the largest sport utility vehicles on the market today, those that weigh between 8,500 and 10,000 pounds, according to DOT officials. Mineta said these large SUVs will be included in the CAFE program starting in 2011, adding that "we worked hard to make sure that no single SUV gets a free pass under these new standards."

However, environmental groups argue that while the new standards do finally include the largest SUVs, they fail to include the largest pickup trucks in that weight class, which constitute 80 percent of the largest vehicles on the road. Since the administration continues to exclude heavy pickup trucks and is only including a handful of the heaviest gas guzzlers, the oil savings that will result from including these vehicles are minimal, Sierra Club officials stated.

The new fuel economy standards also alter the miles-per-gallon target for light trucks, Mineta said. The light truck targets will increase from 21.6 to 24 miles per gallon, the highest level ever for the program. Mineta added that more was being asked of automakers because they now have to factor in 240,000 of the least efficient SUVs for the first time.

"We took a good, close look at automakers' plans, examined new technology that is in use or under development -- like hybrids and the latest generation of diesel-burning engines -- and decided that we could ask more of the manufacturers than we proposed last August," Mineta said. He added that the new standards mean that some light trucks will now have to meet a fuel economy target of 28.4 milers per gallon, which is higher than today's standard for passenger cars.

Steve Larkin, president of the Aluminum Association, praised NHTSA for using size-based criterion to set fuel economy regulations for SUVs, pickups, vans and minivans.

"The Aluminum Association was an early and vocal advocate of the size- based standards that NHTSA has adopted, and we applaud the agency for their data-driven and forward-thinking view on this issue," Larkin said. "There is a growing body of knowledge confirming that vehicle size -- more than weight -- is a better determinant of vehicle safety, and by adopting size-based standards, NHTSA is encouraging the use of advanced, high-strength, low-weight materials -- such as aluminum -- to maintain or even increase vehicle size for safety, while reducing vehicle weight for improved fuel economy and reduced emissions. It is a win-win for consumers and automakers alike."

In 1975, Congress directed the NHTSA to set new light truck fuel economy standards for each new model year at the "maximum technically feasible level." Sierra Club officials said that with today's technology, that maximum level is at least a 40 miles per gallon average for all cars, trucks and SUVs, According to the group, the Bush administration's standards announced fail to reach that goal because:

  • It only increases fuel economy by 1.8 mpg over four years when the technology exists to achieve a much higher improvement.
  • It abandons fleet-wide averages in favor of a sized-based system that will encourage automakers to build larger vehicles with weaker fuel economy standards.
  • It fails to recognize the additional consumer savings that will result from higher fuel economy standards due to the recent increase in gasoline prices.

Officials with the National Environmental Trust said that rule included preamble language contending that its fuel economy standards preempt California's regulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from passenger vehicles, which 10 other states have also adopted. The California standards would cut GHG emissions from new vehicles by 30 percent by the 2016 model year.

The final rule can be accessed at http://nhtsa.gov/staticfiles/DOT/NHTSA/Rulemaking/Rules/Associated%20Files/2006FinalRule.pdf.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.