In years past, the auto industry has been criticized for not taking greater initiative in changing the way it builds cars and light trucks to meet growing concerns over carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. But with the increases in corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards imposed by the federal government in 2011, automakers over the past five years have demonstrated constructive leadership around efforts aimed at making their cars more fuel efficient and cleaner.
The industry is now taking aim at the 54.5 miles-per-gallon (mpg) standard set for 2025, investing billions of dollars in fuel-saving technology (including more efficient engine designs, lighter building materials, low-energy headlights and more efficient air-conditioning systems) and electric cars.
Automakers have met the current fuel economy standard of 34.1 mpg set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for the combined industry-wide fleet (cars and light trucks). That’s a 75-percent improvement over the 19.4 mpg set in 2004. The auto industry also has responded to the directives from the Department of Transportation (DOT) and EPA establishing historic, new national greenhouse gas emission standards.
Automakers are achieving the fuel economy requirements through new and emerging technologies that are helping U.S. consumers save money at the pump and reduce carbon emissions. They are working together with government officials and capitalizing on innovation to take significant steps toward cleaner air and energy efficiency. Among the steps automakers are taking to meet emission reduction requirements is approving the use of E15 – a 15-percent ethanol gasoline blend – in all new vehicles they manufacture. Analysts say that by the end of this year, about one-quarter of all U.S. cars will be capable of using E15 fuels.
Still, the road ahead is not without its speed bumps. Automakers continue to develop and manufacture flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on cleaner-burning E85 – a gasoline blend with up to 85 percent ethanol. And the electric vehicle market – including hybrids that can run on both gasoline and electricity – continues to grow. But, with gas prices having stayed under $2 per gallon over the past two years‑ and all indications are that they will likely remain low through much of next year ‑ automakers have seen a surge in the sale of bigger pickup trucks and SUVs.
With the CAFE standards set to undergo a “mid-term” review this summer, there have been suggestions that some changes may be needed in the requirement going forward, given the surge in cars and trucks with bigger engines, induced by cheaper gas prices. But automakers continue to work on ways to make real gains in vehicle efficiency and significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. One of the more significant ways is by urging federal officials to give greater consideration to ethanol blends that have a higher ethanol percentage than the current E10 that makes up the vast majority of today’s fuel market. Automakers are promoting “mid-level” blends of between 25 and 40 percent ethanol that enable higher octane levels, which have the capacity of making engines burn more efficiently with fewer carbon emissions.
Automakers are principal members of the Ag-Auto-Ethanol (AAE) Work Group, an alliance that also includes biofuel feedstock and producer groups, agribusiness partners, infrastructure providers and technical experts. AAE members, including 25x’25, are working together to develop strategies to accelerate the transition of transportation fuels to higher octane/lower carbon blends for use in the U.S. light duty vehicle fleet. While increasing the development and use of biofuels, including conventional feedstocks like corn and second-generation feedstocks such as corn stover, the work group’s goals would also encourage additional growth in the production of cleaner-burning cars and light trucks on U.S. roads and highways.
These mid-level blends can create additional demand for large volumes of biofuels and enable improved fuel economy in dedicated vehicles, supporting both the biofuels and automobile industries. Those are important gains given the 54.5 mpg CAFE standard in 2025, a federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that calls for 36 billion gallons of clean-burning alternative to be blended into the nation’s transportation fuel supply by 2022, and EPA’s “Tier 3” regulations that are requiring huge reductions in GHG emissions.
The AAE Work Group should be commended for its ongoing efforts to build the infrastructure needed to deliver mid-level ethanol blends – and higher octane ratings – to consumers, as well as exploring other ways to introduce mid-level blends into the market and driving demand for the vehicles capable of using these future fuels. Automakers and others in the work group are also strengthening their efforts to secure meaningful federal credits for producing vehicles that can meet federal GHG-reduction levels and CAFE standards beyond 2016 through higher ethanol blends in gasoline. Together this diverse group of stakeholders demonstrates their commitment to meeting federal regulations to protect the environment while also driving innovation and improvements that can be realized today– another win-win solution.