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What will a 54 mpg car look like?



Dan Sperling, Ph.D. Dan Sperling, Ph.D.
Founding Director, Institute of Transportation Studies
Faculty Director, Policy Institute for Energy, Environment & the Economy
Professor, Transportation Engineering & Environmental Policy
Wallace E. Tyner, Ph.D. Wallace E. Tyner, Ph.D.
James and Lois Ackerman Professor
Department of Agricultural Economics
Francisco Ruiz, Ph.D. Francisco Ruiz, Ph.D.
Associate Professor & Director, IIT Invention Center
Dept. of Mechanical, Materials, and Aerospace Engineering

Since the first gas crisis of the 1970s, automakers and researchers have put in an extraordinary amount of time and resources into developing cars that are more fuel-efficient.

For decades, fuel-efficient simply meant smaller.  But today, as even higher gas mileage standards loom (in 2025, each automaker’s fleet average must reach 54.5 mpg), the future is unlikely to mean highways full of Honda Fits. Options for reaching the government’s ambitious standards grow more numerous every year.

CarInsurance.com spoke with leading academic experts -- Dr. Dan Sperling of University of California at Davis, Dr. Wallace E. Tyner of Purdue University and Dr. Francisco Ruiz of the Illinois Institute of Technology – about what “fuel efficient” means to us today and might look like tomorrow.  What kinds of choices will consumers have? How will automakers engineer gains into vehicles at a reasonable price without sacrificing safety or driving up car insurance rates?

Q: How much smaller will the average car be in order to achieve fuel standards? What would be an example of an average size car in the future?

A. Dan Sperling, Ph.D., University of California, Davis

The U.S. car standards are based on a footprint metric (they are denoted in both miles per gallon and greenhouse gas emissions per MJ of energy). What this footprint means is that there is a “unique” standard for each size vehicle (measured as the rectangular “footprint” under the 4 wheels).  Smaller cars (footprints) have tighter fuel/greenhouse gas standards. And what that means is that the structure of the U.S. standards results in little incentive to make cars smaller.

A. Wallace E. Tyner, Ph.D., Purdue University

In general vehicle size will fall, but perhaps just as important, vehicles will become lighter.  More composite materials will be used to reduce vehicle weight without compromising strength.  I do not have any specific numbers for this.

A. Francisco Ruiz, Ph.D., Illinois Institute of Technology

Cars are getting more fuel efficient all the time. For instance, the 2013 models of the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima have road mileage numbers close to 40 mpg, which used to be achievable only by smaller cars. If this trend continues, and there is no reason to believe it won't, especially with the gradual introduction of hybrid drive trains, I don't see American consumers moving to Fit-size cars.

Q: Fuel standards use a complex formula.  What are the loopholes that auto makers might employ in order to meet the letter of the law?

A. Dan Sperling, Ph.D., University of California, Davis

Some simple things they can do is expand the wheelbase to get a larger footprint (and thusaverage fuel economy   less stringent standards). They can also sell more electric vehicles (which count as zero emissions and also get double credit), and there is a long list of other small changes they can make (even including grills that open and shut automatically to reduce air drag) (though the use of these other credits is limited).

A. Wallace E. Tyner, Ph.D., Purdue University

Yes the standards are complicated.  And 54.5 mpg does not really mean the average car will get that level.  The average car will still be less than 40.  However, that is a huge increase from today with the average car being about 21.  Vehicle makers get credit for flex fuel vehicles in the system.  Of course, electric vehicles and PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) give them a large boost.

A. Francisco Ruiz, Ph.D., Illinois Institute of Technology

They tune the engine and its controller to do as well as possible on the official testing cycles, which do not match the actual use very well. For instance, acceleration in the official city cycle is much more gentle than what a typical user would want. This is one of the reasons users seldom get the advertised mileage figures.

Q: Will rules altering mpg requirements based on a vehicle's size have unintended consequences?

A. Dan Sperling, Ph.D., University of California, Davis

One consequence, though understood by many, is failure to encourage downsizing and incentive to use lightweight materials.

A. Wallace E. Tyner, Ph.D., Purdue University

The rules do not target size.  Size is one way to achieve the target, which is mpg. The unintended consequence perhaps is that the cars will cost more.  The higher fuel economy is not free.  Especially as we get to the higher levels, the added cost per car will amount to several thousand dollars.  In essence, consumers will pay more up front to save more later on fuel.  At the lower levels, consumers actually gain from the standards in terms of cost savings.  However, as the standards get tighter, it appears now that consumers may pay more in higher vehicle cost than their discounted fuel savings.  If we can develop better technologies between now and 2020, that cost might be averted.

A. Francisco Ruiz, Ph.D., Illinois Institute of Technology

They have already. Current rules exempt utility vehicles (pickup trucks and such) from the same rules as passenger cars. This is why we have gas-guzzling SUVs. They are not held to the same standards as cars because, technically, they are not passenger vehicles. If they were held to the same rules for fuel economy and crash or rollover protection (quite subpar in SUVs), these vehicles would never have reached the popularity they enjoy.


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1 Responses to "What will a 54 mpg car look like?"
  1. Frank horine

    The "54 mpg car" has been around for many years, in the form of modern hybrid passenger cars. I have learned to consistently get 55-65 mpg with my 2010 Toyota Prius, in mixed freeway and city driving. I can get these high mileages by obeying all traffic laws, not creating unsafe conditions for myself and other drivers, and without getting honked at or flipped off. As a reminder, the Toyota Prius is not a tiny car, and at over 3000 pounds, is not an especially light car either. Actually, the car one drives is only part of the ability to get high mileage. Most of the "secret" is in how one drives, and learning the physics of efficient transport through city traffic and effect of hills and speed in freeway driving. Most definitely, the "54 mpg car" is already here; however, the "54mpg driver" is a LONG way off.