Drilling in Detroit (2001)

Tapping automaker ingenuity to build safe and efficient automobiles

The fuel economy of today's cars and light trucks is at its lowest point in 20 years. A combination of federal inaction on fuel economy policy and the increased marketing of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and minivans as substitutes for passenger cars have led to this point. Our nation now faces a number of significant and growing problems that could be addressed through a reasonable but aggressive approach to fuel economy improvements. These problems include increased consumer fuel costs; a growing dependence on imported oil; rising emissions of greenhouse gases, toxics, and smog-forming pollutants; and a fleet that is less safe than it would have been without the massive infusion of today's light trucks.

This report represents a comprehensive assessment of both the technical and economic potential of achieving a safe and fuel-efficient fleet. The analysis is based on existing technologies, many of which are on the road today. The research combined conservative economic assessments with sound computer models to investigate the impacts of significant fuel economy improvements through the year 2020. The study shows that increasing the fuel economy of the nation's fleet of new cars and light trucks to 40 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2012 and then to 55 mpg by 2020 can yield significant benefits to consumers, the economy, and the environment without sacrificing passenger safety during a collision. These findings indicate that, instead of looking for oil in environmentally sensitive areas, the nation can tap the ingenuity of Detroit's automobile industry to produce a fleet of safe and fuel-efficient vehicles. For these benefits to be realized, the federal government needs to act now to provide meaningful and continuous increases in fuel economy standards.


This assessment of the impact of fuel-efficient technologies indicates the following:

A fleet that relies on continuously evolving conventional technologies could reach an average of more than 40 miles per gallon, nearly a 75 percent increase compared with today's fleet. Many of these gains could be made with technologies that are already in consumers' hands. These improvements would lead to fuel cost savings of $3,000 to more than $5,000 over the lifetime of a vehicle. These savings would more than make up for the cost of the fuel economy improvements. Under such a scenario, the typical family car could reach over 45 mpg, while the cost of filling up an SUV could be cut in half with a fuel economy of 40 mpg.

Relying on hybrid electric vehicle technologies could bring the fleet to at least 55 miles per gallon. Such a fleet would more than double current fuel economy levels and could save consumers between $3,500 and over $6,500 in fuel costs. Hybrid electric vehicle technologies could enable a family car to reach nearly 60 mpg, while an SUV could cross the 50 mpg mark. A simultaneous move to fuel cell vehicles could lead to a tripling of the fuel economy of family cars and could significantly reduce fuel costs for all drivers.

Improvements in fuel economy can be made while maintaining or improving current crash safety expectations. The majority of the improvements in fuel economy can be achieved through use of more-efficient powertrains, which will have no impact on vehicle safety. Additional gains can be achieved through reducing the weight of today's light trucks and altering their design to make them less dangerous to the other vehicles on the road. This strategy can have the dual effect of reducing the fatalities caused by these new vehicles and improving their fuel economy.

Automobile companies can further improve their customers' safety by implementing improved safety technologies that have yet to be incorporated in vehicles, regardless of what path the companies choose to pursue on fuel economy. Automakers have a multitude of options for producing a safe and fuel-efficient fleet of cars and light trucks to satisfy our driving needs. It is important that the industry commits to making the safety of their consumers a key priority in vehicle design.

There is no need to sacrifice air quality or human health to achieve fuel economy improvements. The technologies relied upon in this report can easily meet future emissions regulations and do not have significant tailpipe toxic emissions associated with their use. Alternatives that produce increased levels of toxic, particulate, and nitrogen oxide emissions, such as diesel engines, can be avoided while substantial fuel economy gains are achieved.

If the fleet reaches a fuel economy of 40 mpg by 2012, and then 55 mpg by 2020, our nation could significantly reduce its oil use. Instead of allowing US passenger car and light-truck oil use to grow unchecked, we can turn it back to today's levels by 2015 and then keep it going down. This strategy would save nearly 5 million barrels of oil a day after 18 years (2020) and 1.5 million barrels per day after only eight years (2010).

Significant fuel economy improvements would dwarf supplies obtained from proposed expansion into environmentally sensitive areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 18 years the United States will have saved more than four times the oil available in the Arctic Refuge at today's oil prices. In that same year, we would save more than 10 times what the Arctic would be producing each day if development were begun there today.

Fuel savings would be accompanied by billions of dollars in savings each year through reduced fuel costs, along with the creation of a significant number of new jobs. By 2010, consumers could be saving $9.8 billion per year. This figure would rise to over $28 billion by 2020. These savings, along with the investments automobile manufacturers would make to improve fuel economy, could be returned to the nation's economy, with a resulting increase of over 40,000 jobs in the automobile industry by 2010, ultimately reaching over 100,000 new automobile industry jobs by 2020.

The environmental impact of our driving habits can be significantly reduced by increasing new-passenger-vehicle fuel economy to 40 mpg by 2012 and to 55 mpg by 2020. By 2010, the greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and light trucks could be reduced by 273 million tons. In the same time frame, producing less gasoline would mean that nearly 150 million pounds of toxic emissions and 320 million pounds of smog-forming pollutants would never reach our lungs. By 2020, vehicle pollution could be reduced by 888 million tons of greenhouse-gas emissions, 481 million pounds of toxic emissions, and 1,039 million pounds of smog-forming pollutants.

Recommendations: Reinvesting in Fuel Economy

In the early 1970s, the United States experienced an energy crisis that drove up gasoline prices and forced consumers to wait in long lines to fill their tanks and empty their pockets. The government responded by investing in fuel economy improvements and creating the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that doubled the passenger vehicle fuel economy over a period of 10 years but provided for no increases after 1985.

After 15 years of stagnant fuel economy standards, significant pressure from many stakeholders has prompted the US government to investigate a reinvestment in fuel economy policy. Based on the findings of this study, UCS recommends that the US government and the automobile industry responsible for supplying our passenger vehicles take the following steps:

  • Raise the CAFE standards for light-duty trucks to that of passenger cars in the near term. Closing the "light-truck loophole" is a key first step in improving fuel economy.
  • By 2012, raise the CAFE standards for the combined fleet of cars and light trucks to 40 mpg. Eliminating the separation between cars and light trucks will give automakers the flexibility to meet the standards in the manner that suits them best.
  • By 2020, raise the CAFE standards to 55 mpg. Several years earlier, studies should be commissioned on the potential for increased reliance on hybrid electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles to achieve even higher fuel economy levels by 2030 and beyond.
  • In all years, through government standards or automaker initiative, place a greater emphasis on bringing improved safety technologies to the new-vehicle market. With today's engineering practices and technologies, there is no reason that consumers should have to sacrifice safety to gain improved fuel economy; the potential even exists to provide simultaneous improvements in both.
  • The US government can lend additional support to ensure that fuel-efficient vehicles come to market by funding research and development of advanced technologies and by creating incentives tied to fuel economy improvements.

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