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CAFE and cars

New mileage, emissions standards will change vehicles, but by how much is unknown

June 7, 2009
By RODNEY MINOR/The Leader-Herald

The higher mileage and emissions standards set by the Obama administration on May 19, which begin to take effect in 2012 and are to be achieved by 2016, will transform the U.S. car and truck fleet.

The new Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules would bring new cars and trucks sold in the U.S. to an average of 35.5 miles per gallon, about 10 mpg more than today's standards. Passenger cars will be required to get 39 mpg, and light trucks 30 mpg.

That means cars and trucks on American roads will have to become smaller, lighter and more efficient.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

Brown’s Ford of Johnstown Sales Manager T.J. Reed points to a 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid on Monday at the lot.

Jeff Miller, the general manager at John C. Miller of Johnstown, said he expects some extension of the dates from the federal government in the future. Miller said it seemed like having the automakers try to meet the requirements in the next few years would be asking for too much, too soon.

Officials said the changes will start with smaller cars and trucks, and improvements to the internal combustion engine.

Automakers also are already working on new technology, including direct fuel injection and high compression of the air-fuel mixture, that will make cars and trucks more efficient.

Car companies are rewiring vehicles so components such as air conditioners and power steering pumps are powered by electricity rather than by the engine, saving fuel.

And they're developing computer-controlled transmissions with six or more gears, adding efficiency, and rolling out more gas-electric hybrids - among the few cars sold today that meet the 2016 standards.

John Flint, the Internet manager at Eagle Chevrolet-Cadillac of Johnstown, said he thinks General Motors has been prepared to increase the fuel efficiency of its vehicles.

Even with GM's recent trip to bankruptcy court and the uncertainty of what cars will look like in the future, Flint said the dealership had not been affected.

"It's business as usual," he said.

Auto industry insiders said the changes will make pickup trucks so much more expensive that they will be used almost exclusively for work. And instead of a minivan or SUV, more parents will haul their families in much smaller vehicles with three rows of seats.

Flint said any changes that might be made to pickup trucks or SUVs are not a concern. The dealership has a good balance of what it sells, he said, so it does not have to rely on one specific vehicle to be successful.

In addition, James Provenzano, the dealer principal/owner at Eagle, said GM has multiple vehicles that get more than 30 mpg and will roll out more in the future.

If the average fuel economy in a manufacturer's annual fleet of cars and trucks falls below the CAFE standards, the manufacturer must pay a penalty. So vehicles with high fuel efficiency can bring up the average of an entire fleet.

Provenzano said the Chevrolet Aveo is a vehicle that is already available that could help offset some of the less fuel efficient vehicles.

GM also will be coming out with the Chevrolet Volt soon, which should help it compete with vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, he said.

The most popular vehicle GM has might be the Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck.

"The second might become the Volt," he said.

The Volt is designed to run 40 miles on battery power when it is fully charged. After that, a small internal combustion engine kicks in to generate electricity and keep the car going. Other automakers are working on similar systems.

Provenzano said for people who live in the area and have to commute a good distance for work every day, a vehicle like the Volt could be ideal.

However, automakers have said they need stable, relatively high gasoline prices to create a market for electric vehicles. GM may not be enthused about rolling out its rechargeable Volt next year if gas is at $2 per gallon.

American consumers have already shown their car-buying habits can change rapidly depending on gas prices. When fuel cost $4 a gallon last summer, people flocked to smaller cars. Gas is much cheaper now, and sales of hybrids have plummeted.

"There is always a need for larger trucks," said T.J. Reed, the sales manager at Brown's Ford of Johnstown.

The dealership has been selling more of its smaller SUVs and midsize cars - such as the Ford Fusion - as opposed to its smaller cars, he said.

What customers are looking for varies. Some customers come in looking for more fuel-efficient vehicles, he said, and others just want to trade in an old pickup truck for a new one.

Electricity and horsepower

One way automakers could try to increase fuel efficiency in their new vehicles would be to swap smaller engines into the latest models. While this could increase fuel efficiency, it might also cost the vehicle horsepower.

Kristen Crocetta, the president of Allen's Family Heating and Cooling of Gloversville, said less horsepower could be an issue if the business needs new vans in the future. The business not only has two vans, it also has a truck with a trailer that is attached when something needs to be towed.

At New Process Cleaners in Johnstown and Gloversville, business owner Joel Bien-Aime said less horsepower in new vans could be a problem.

"I would love to see better gas mileage, but not if we lose more horsepower," he said.

If the business were to have to send its van on more trips in the future - thus increasing its costs - it would have to be an out-of-pocket expense, Bien-Aime said, because the dry cleaner offers free pickup and delivery.

While some vehicles will undoubtably be affected in horsepower in the drive to get better fuel efficiency, it is difficult to say which ones they will be.

Not only do automakers have a multitude of options available to increase fuel efficiency, the way the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration measure the vehicles - in regard to fuel efficiency and the CAFE standards respectively -may change. The agencies have proposed going by a vehicle's "carbon footprint" instead of weight to determine if the vehicle needs to be regulated by CAFE standards, and what fuel efficiency level it should be measured at.

Praise in Japan

Japanese automakers praised the new standards, which may give them an advantage.

When gas prices were higher, Japan's automakers benefitted from consumer demand for cars with good mileage.

The Toyota Prius and Honda's Insight hybrid are among just six vehicles that offer fuel economy of at least 35.5 mpg, according to the auto Web site

The others are the Honda Civic hybrid, the Ford Fusion hybrid, the Mercury Milan hybrid and the Smart car.

Reed said he was not concerned about the increased competition foreign car companies could offer. He said Ford has a number of vehicles it is working on that use more fuel- efficient technology.

"Ford has got its stuff together," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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