A recent study from Consumers Union — the public policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports — shows continued interest among U.S. residents in seeing automakers improve fuel economy figures, even as gas prices remain fairly low.
While this should come as a shock to no one, nearly nine in 10 surveyed consumers agreed automakers should continue improving fuel efficiency standards on all vehicles. As well, only 30 percent believed manufacturers actually cared about lowering fuel costs for their customers.
This might be true but, then again, why would automakers do such a thing when the general populace has essentially turned its back on economical passenger cars? With little incentive to sell them, especially if the Trump administration alters 2025 emission targets, any top-tier automaker focusing exclusively on building MPG-focused automobiles would be placing itself at major financial risk.
The survey indicated fuel economy as the area perceived to possess the most room for improvement in modern vehicles. However, consumers have not used their wallets to bolster economy car sales. There appears to be a disparity between what the public claims to value and how it actually behaves. At a minimum, consumers may have misunderstood everything it would take to see fleet-wide fuel consumption decline. If they want to see higher MPGs, they’re going to have to make some sacrifices and the survey doesn’t allude to that fact.
Number one, with a bullet, is to settle for less automobile or shell out additional money. Fuel efficient cars already exist — they’re called economy cars. While I’ve never owned one myself, I’ve driven plenty and they are perfectly serviceable modes of transportation. However, North America is abandoning them. Subcompact sales are already down 17 percent in the United States this year and aren’t expected to bounce back as crossovers occupy more of the market every single day.
Alternatively, shoppers can purchase an electric vehicle, but we all know how that’s going. Even with federal tax rebates, EVs remain a comparably expensive niche item and often serve as a second vehicle to homes that can easily afford them. They will come down in price eventually, but that could take over a decade to accomplish. In the interim, electric cars will continue to be smaller, more expensive, and force consumers to sacrifice driving range and convenience.
The only other option is to force automakers to implement fuel-saving technologies on the types of vehicles customers actually want to buy. Data from Consumers Union showed 87 percent of the Americans surveyed agreed automakers should continue to improve fuel economy and 73 believed the government should mandate higher standards for vehicle efficiency.
“Consumers see the value in fuel efficiency, and the technology more than pays for itself through fuel savings,” said Shannon Baker-Branstetter, policy counsel for Consumers Union. “As automakers increase vehicle efficiency, consumers benefit from greater savings.”
That’s true, especially if you are moving from a real gas guzzler to something substantially more efficient. However, let’s do some crude math to see how this plays out in the long term. The survey stated 79 percent of Americans believed increasing fuel economy from a real-world average of 25 mpg today to 40 mpg in 2025 is a worthwhile goal. Assuming fuel prices suddenly ballooned to $3 per gallon, the average person driving a 25 mpg vehicle would eat up $1,440 driving 12,000 miles annually. Someone getting 40 mpg would spend $900 a year. While that only equates to about ten bucks a week in savings, it’ll add up over the lifetime of the vehicle.
Here’s the problem: you’ll usually just break even. The Toyota RAV4 starts at $24,410 while the hybrid variant starts at $29,000 and only improves average economy in town, not on the highway. It also doesn’t come anywhere close to 40 mpg — admittedly, no SUV does. If consumers want to see that kind of rating, they’re going to have to shoulder even more technological development costs or welcome affordable, lightweight cars back into their lives. A Mazda3 can manage 37 mpg on the highway right now, and all for under $20,000. Otherwise, shoppers will have to wait for SUVs and crossovers to catch up and continue to pay a premium for cutting-edge engine tech.
By some measurements, car buyers will have to pay anyway. Hybrid and electric units are typically several thousand dollars more expensive than traditional internal combustion models, but the latter is set to become more expensive while the former gradually decreases in price. “We have two curves,” Gilles Normand, Renault’s senior vice president for electrics, explained in a May interview. “One is EV technology cost reductions because there are more breakthroughs in the cost of technology and more volume, so the cost of EVs will go down. ICE going to go up as a result of more stringent regulations especially regarding to particulate regulations.”
In the end, consumers who genuinely care about the environment or saving money at the pump should look at how they’re spending their own money. Passenger cars make up only 37 percent of the U.S. marketplace, and those sales are dropping fast. The solution to fuel economy woes is already out there in the form of petite and inexpensive hatchbacks — models that would be much more popular if people were serious about their convictions.
Instead, many want to have their cake and eat it too — which is something automakers are working on. The industry knows the public likes larger vehicles and doesn’t want to return to Nixon-era fuel economy, but we’ll have to meet automakers halfway if we want them to work a miracle.
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