Auto mileage standards help fuel the economy — why pump the brakes now?
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This Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee held a field hearing, “Driving Innovation and Federal Policies,” at the site of the Washington Auto Show, D.C.’s annual showcase of all things automotive. As expected, there was talk of self-driving cars, electric vehicles, ride sharing and other cutting-edge trends that are changing the way Americans move. But we didn’t hear about one of the most successful drivers of automotive innovation: national fuel-economy standards for cars, SUVs and pickup trucks.

Automakers supported the latest round of strong miles-per-gallon standards back in 2012. And as they’ve developed creative new ways to make passenger vehicles more fuel-efficient, consumers have responded. 

Through 2016, the auto industry enjoyed a record-breaking seven straight years of increasing sales. This sales streak was driven by an amazing crop of innovative cars, trucks and SUVs that let drivers buy any type of vehicle and still go farther on every gallon of gas, all thanks to increasing national fuel economy standards. 

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Think of it like the Russians sending up Sputnik before the U.S. had put anything into space. It was a kick in the rear end, and we responded by landing a man on the moon. Fuel economy standards are the kick that American technology and car companies needed to show what we really can do — I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

 

But, lately, some automakers have been claiming that fuel economy standards somehow don’t let them meet consumer demand for large and popular pickup trucks and SUVs. That’s ridiculous, and they know it. The fuel-economy standards are not one-size-fits all. Different kinds of vehicles have different efficiency targets; SUVs don’t have to get the same mileage as a compact car. Automakers can decide to manufacture a mix of vehicle types, or just stick to enormous SUVs if they like. As long as they meet the standards for their given category, they’re fine.

And vehicles have been meeting the standards. According to an EPA news release, “auto manufacturers continue to innovate and make progress increasing fuel economy and reducing pollution.” 

If automakers truly understand their customers, they will continue to improve gas mileage.

Consumer Federation of America analysis compared SUVs, pickups and crossovers whose MPGs increased by over 10 percent between 2011 to 2016 with SUVs, pickups and crossovers whose MPGs increased by less than 10 percent in the same time period. The more efficient group had a 59 percent increase in sales, compared to a 41 percent increase in sales for the relative gas-guzzlers. The better the improvement in fuel economy, the better the increase in sales. 

That rings true to me. For our dealerships, one of our hardest times came when gas prices spiked and stayed high starting in 2004. This left us stuck with a gas guzzling inventory that nobody wanted to buy anymore. Sure, gas prices are low now. But sooner or later, they’ll go up again. And no matter which way pump prices are trending, I know from experience that Americans would rather buy a more-efficient vehicle, all else being equal.

At the Washington Auto Show, you’ll see an array of SUVs, crossovers and pickup trucks with miles-per-gallon numbers rivaling those of smaller sedans from a decade ago, thanks to automakers’ fuel-efficiency innovations. You’ll see hybrid SUVs, electric cars and small diesels and turbos that get good gas mileage even when going fast or towing a heavy load.

Families and businesses like saving money at the pump, week after week and year after year, throughout the life of their cars and trucks. They can do that thanks to the clear national fuel efficiency and emissions standards like those the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the EPA, California regulators and the automakers themselves agreed to back in 2012.

National fuel economy standards are working. They’re making our automobile fleet more efficient, more attractive to consumers, and more competitive on the global market. Automakers and lawmakers alike should know better than to mess with a good thing.

Adam Lee is chairman of Lee Auto Malls, in Lewiston, Maine, where he and his partners manage 19 dealerships in eight cities.