Photographer: Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images

Trump Can’t Stop Cars From Getting More Energy-Efficient

Economics (and performance) are driving efficiency gains, as much as the EPA.

Sweden, you can keep your silly turbos. Japan, spare us with the toddler-size kei cars. Donald Trump wants to make America better in a nostalgic way, and to many, that means big cars with brutish engines burning dinosaur-era goo.  

Trump has promised to scrap efficiency rules that required automakers to produce vehicles with an average efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. At the moment, that looks like 17 million Toyota Priuses (Prii?). In a meeting with auto executives this week, the president said he may slice environmental standards in about a year, providing carmakers deliver "big numbers in terms of jobs." The EPA now has until April 2018 to decide whether the 2025 milestone is feasible.

To be sure, the mileage rules were a high hurdle; complying with them would have collectively cost $200 billion, according to a recent lobbying letter from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "No conventional vehicle today meets the target," Mitch Bainwol, chief executive officer of the alliance, wrote. 

But if I-95 does, in fact, look like a scene from Mad Max in a few years, with armed convoys fighting for gasoline, it won’t be because mileage mandates went away. Vehicles have grown remarkably more efficient in recent years, and that momentum isn’t going to stop because of new EPA targets. In the past nine years, the federal measurement of efficiency in the U.S. fleet has increased 25 percent, to 31.3 miles per gallon, according to the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute. The tide of Teslas has helped, but much of that gain comes from traditional cars made more efficient.

In recent years, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards have stayed largely flat, but they did so as Americans rushed to buy SUVs and trucks. The fact that, collectively, America is still going just as far on a gallon of gas as it did a few years ago is an engineering marvel. Last year, more than half the vehicles purchased in the U.S. were trucks and SUVs, according to IHS.  

Three things, in particular, have helped move the needle on mileage in those big rigs: aluminum alloys that make for lighter body panels, cylinders that shut down when they aren't needed, and turbo units, which give engines a bit more oomph only when asked, as opposed to all the time. Also helpful on the efficiency front: engines that shut off at stop lights and continuously variable transmissions. 

What's interesting is that many of the engineering improvements are driven by performance as much as environmental concerns. Mercedes engineers didn’t put two turbos in their latest racecar because they were worried about asthma rates; they did it to make a quicker machine. Ford didn’t sheath its F-150 pickup truck in lightweight aluminum to help Texas ranchers save $3 at the pump. They did it so the rig would weigh less and tow more. And street racers probably aren't drawn to Tesla’s “ludicrous" drive mode because of climate change.

To be sure, federal mileage mandates accelerated the pace of these innovations, and abolishing or delaying the 54.5-miles-per-gallon goal will let car companies ease up on R&D. But at the moment, transportation isn't all that different from power generation, in that efficiency is starting to make the most sense economically, not just environmentally. 

Ford Mustang EPA mileage
About one-third of the people buying Ford's Mustang now opt for the smallest, most efficient engine.
Source: Ford

Even as the federal government stands down, there will still be plenty of regulatory incentive for car companies to keep pushing and perfecting electric cars. It will come from the places where Trump took the biggest beating in the polls—specifically, California. In part because of the Los Angeles smog problem, the Sunshine State has been particularly aggressive about tailpipe pollution, which accounts for about 40 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions. Its regulations require that about 15 percent of cars and trucks sold in 2025 will have to be zero-emission vehicles, which is to say, they'll run on electricity, or hydrogen, or garbage, or algae—anything but petrol. 

At least nine other states have adopted a version of California’s standards, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Oregon. Not surprisingly, almost every major car company now has a robust pipeline of electric vehicles in development, plans that didn't stall in early November. 

The Trump administration is reportedly looking to scrap California's regulations as well. The state's mandate for making its own rules is written into the Clean Air Act and, as such, requires federal approval. Bigfooting California's clean-air goals, however, would likely trigger a long legal battle. Auto executives would be free to idle their current R&D on efficiency but only at the risk of having to play catch-up later. 

Meanwhile, Trump's imperative to add U.S. production may be a far tougher trick for the auto industry than hitting efficiency goals. U.S. vehicle sales have long been in overdrive, goosed by low interest rates and increasingly generous financing terms. Now delinquencies on car loans are rising, and dealers have increased incentives to keep the metal moving.

The last time U.S. auto production outran demand, the industry had to shut dozens of factories and haul in a $70 billion government buyout before the market stabilized. Dan Luria, an analyst who has advised the United Auto Workers union, said opening new plants at the moment is "the nightmare scenario" for auto companies.

For a true snapshot of American driving at the moment, don’t go to the drag strip or a muscle-car rally. And definitely don't go to Washington, D.C. Just take a look at the car our forefathers would have driven: the Ford Mustang. This paragon of American manufacturing can be had with four different engines these days, two big V-8s that sound like a disco parking lot, a sober six-cylinder, and a relatively tiny, “Ecoboost” version with just four cylinders. Ford says about one-third of Mustang buyers of late choose the smallest engine. And yes, it's plenty great.

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