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Reforming the Automobile Fuel Economy Standards Program

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Consumers Union , publisher of Consumer Reports (CR), has long advocated that all passenger vehicles, including light trucks intended primarily for transporting passengers, should fall into a single category to meet common fuel economy goals. When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations first took effect in 1977, SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks were not the popular family vehicles they are today. In 1975, light trucks constituted only 20% of the vehicle market and were primarily used as work vehicles. Today they comprise nearly 50% of the new vehicle market and are most primarily used primarily as passenger cars.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it might have made sense for these vehicles to be placed in a separate category. But in the ensuing 27 years, the car/light truck dichotomy that exists under CAFE no longer makes practical sense. Unfortunately, the CAFE program has failed to keep pace with changing consumer trends. Indeed, we believe that CAFE’s structure – with vehicles classified as “light trucks” having to meet a far lower average fuel efficiency standard –20.7 miles per gallon (mpg) rather than the average fuel efficiency standard for cars, at 27.5 mpg — has in fact fostered and promoted the manufacture and sale of large, fuel-inefficient vehicles such as SUVs.