- The Washington Times - Monday, May 25, 2009

Automakers are fully behind the Obama administration’s new set of fuel-economy rules unveiled last week. But make no mistake — these regulations will require manufacturers to invest billions more dollars in new technology to help them meet those goals.

The new rules call for manufacturers to reach an overall fleet average of 35.5 mpg by 2016, with passenger cars reaching 39 mpg and light trucks getting 30 mpg under a system that develops standards for each vehicle class size. Manufacturers would also be required to hit individual mileage targets.

The regulations are expected to cut American oil use by billions of barrels, which is equivalent to removing hundreds of millions of cars from U.S. roads. But they are expected to cost car buyers an extra $1,300 per vehicle by the time the plan is complete.

They will also cost automakers. The Transportation Department last year estimated that requiring the industry to meet a looser standard of 31.6 mpg by 2015 would cost nearly $47 billion.

Here are some questions and answers about what the automakers will need to do to achieve the new standards for emissions and fuel economy:

Q: How big a challenge will this be for the industry?

A: To get an idea for how far away the auto industry is from the new benchmarks, consider this: Only six vehicles on sale today offer fuel economy of at least 35.5 mpg, according to the auto Web site Edmunds.com. They are the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight, the Honda Civic hybrid, the Ford Fusion hybrid, the Mercury Milan hybrid and the Smart Fortwo micro car.

Q: What are they going to do to meet these requirements?

A: For starters, manufacturers have vehicles in the pipeline that will help them clear the new hurdles, and they will likely be announcing more.

Ford is bringing fuel-efficient small cars such as the Fiesta to North America in the coming years and is planning on putting fully electric cars in showrooms by 2011.

General Motors Corp. still plans to debut its Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric car next year — provided that it isn’t derailed by bankruptcy.

Chrysler LLC also has plans to introduce electric cars and small cars from Italian automaker Fiat Group SpA. Toyota and Honda will also be ramping up hybrid and plug-in vehicle production in the coming years.

Q: Are there other technologies that will help automakers meet the new regulations?

A: Besides more conventional hybrids and extended-range plug-ins such as the Volt, expect to see so-called clean diesel cars such as the Volkswagen Jetta TDI.

Extended-range plug-ins rely on a rechargeable battery for short distances, then a combination of gas and electric power for longer trips. Clean diesels use technology that filters out particulate matter and offers better fuel economy.

Automakers are also planning to introduce more exclusively electric vehicles. Meanwhile, companies such as GM and Honda have long been experimenting with hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, though they remain a long way off.

“There’s all kinds of technologies that can be brought” to market, said Aaron Bragman, an auto analyst with the consulting firm IHS Global Insight.

Q: When assessing a manufacturer’s fuel economy rating, how will miles per gallon be calculated for vehicles such as plug-in hybrids, which can be driven without using a drop of fuel as long as they don’t travel too far at a time?

A: That isn’t yet known. The Environmental Protection Agency has said it is working on how to measure the fuel economy for these sorts of vehicles and for pure electric cars and vehicles with other exotic powertrains.

Q: Could there be some unintended side effects of the new policy, in terms of what the manufacturers produce and sell?

A: U.S. automakers have long been criticized for relying too much on trucks and SUVs. And Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of Edmunds.com, said the new rules might not change that because the fuel-economy standard for light trucks remains lower than the one for cars.

“In the United States, trucks have been sort of given a free pass on the [fuel-economy] standard,” Mr. Anwyl said. “What’s been happening is the automakers are building more and more vehicles and labeling them as light trucks.”

As for cars, one easy way to boost fuel economy is to make them smaller. But that could raise questions about vehicle safety, Mr. Anwyl said.

Q: I like my SUV because it’s comfortable, fun to drive and makes me and my family feel safe. Does this spell the end of big SUVs such as the Cadillac Escalade and the Hummer H3?

A: Even the hybrid version of the Escalade gets a relatively weak 20 mpg. Hummer, which GM has been trying to sell for some time, does not have a promising future under the new standards. All in all, the new rules could lead to a dramatic reshaping of the vehicles available in U.S. showrooms.

“The new regulations may indeed affect what vehicles are available for purchase nationally, and they are sure to spell the end for less-efficient offerings in various segments,” Mr. Bragman said in a research report.

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