Customers say they want higher fuel standards, but thei... Customers say they want higher fuel standards, but their buying behavior says something different. (Tim Boyle, Getty Images)
Americans in the Midwest of all political persuasions say they'd support a minimum 60 mpg fuel economy standard by 2025, says an environmental group that conducted a survey this month.

The 60 mpg figure has come up several times in the past few months as automakers, lobbying groups and government officials try to set new standards for the future. New fuel economy figures are due out Sept. 1 from the federal government.

Ceres, a two-decade-old non-profit environmental group founded in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill, says bipartisan voters in Ohio and Michigan say they want to see 60 mpg as the new fuel economy standard.

"In a democracy, public opinion should matter," says Mark Mellman, CEO and president of The Mellmann Group, which conducted the survey of 1,600 voters in the Heartland.

But what consumers say in surveys is very often the exact opposite of how they behave in a new car showroom. People say they want better fuel economy, but when it comes time to choose between paying an extra $3,000 for a hybrid system or getting a bigger car with heated leather seats and a Bose sound system, their dreams of driving green often evaporate.

Opposition to a 60 mpg standard will be met with catcalls from environmentalists. Indeed, the findings of apparent public support put the auto industry in the unpopular and politically incorrect position of saying no to this noble goal. The industry has an illustrious and pock-marked tradition of pushing back against environmental and safety mandates -- safety belts, airbags and higher fuel economy -- that clearly benefit society and the planet.

But on this one, they might be right.

Without standards like CAFE, which was passed in 1977, the industry has been loath to increase fuel economy on its own. Average fuel economy remained about flat from the early 1980s until the late 2000s when those figures started creeping up. New federal mandates, which the industry also opposed, call for the industry to have a minimum 34.1 mpg by 2016.

And, as could have been predicted, fuel economy has started to improve as the industry works to reach that goal. We are seeing more cars topping 40 mpg in highway driving, and 30 mpg in combined city/highway driving, than ever before. The new Ford Explorer is much more fuel efficient than the old one, and is selling much better than the old model did in the last few years. The new Subaru Impreza has jumped from highway mileage in the mid-20s to the mid-30s, using every engineering trick available to hit those numbers.

But amidst the progress, the 34.1 mpg goal is a stretch. There are concerns that people won't want to pay for the added technology -- hybrid systems, direct injection engines, turbo chargers and stop-start systems that shut an engine down at idle and stop-lights -- needed to get to a 34.1 average.

Pushing for 60 mpg sounds like a good idea. It would wean us off our addiction on foreign oil, and could help improve national security as we became less dependent on getting oil from places where people hate us.

Automakers can build a car that gets 60 mpg, but few would choose it for the family ride.

Automakers would have to contort car designs, and would fill up showrooms with tiny, really expensive vehicles. Given that the most popular vehicle in the U.S. has been the Ford F-150 pickup for 34 years in a row, there's no evidence Americans want tiny cars. The smart fortwo has been a bust in the U.S., and has never made any money for automaker Daimler. And every time gas prices slip below $3.50 per gallon, sales of all small cars soften up almost overnight.

Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the lobbying group Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, says a 60 mpg mandate would essentially mean all cars would have to be electric cars.

She has a point: The smallest car Kia Motors sells, the Rio subcompact, will get maybe 50 mpg on the highway when it debuts this fall. It has all the gas saving bells and whistles except an electric or hybrid drivetrain, which would add between $5,000 and $12,000 to its cost.

Given that electric cars only hit the market this December, it's unclear where we'll be with that technology in 13 years. The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf are certainly cool, but they have their limitations. The Volt only seats four people, because its large battery cuts the back seat in half. The Leaf can only go 100 miles at best (and often less) because it doesn't have a gas backup, so it rules out a large segment of the population who like to drive their cars farther than 45 minutes from home (because you need to save battery power to get back.)

The 60 mpg average goal that would be set for 2025, still 14 years away -- which seems like plenty of time to ramp up infrastructure to put recharging stations all over the country and dial up production of batteries. But it's not. It takes four to five years to develop a car, and even longer to invent new technologies, test them for quality and durability, and then get them on the road. That's not even considering the infrastructure development needed to provide recharging stations across the U.S.

The auto industry should sell between 13 million and 16 million new vehicles a year between now and 2025. For automakers, in the next fourteen years, to make 10% of those a year electrics and hybrids would be an enormous achievement.

The auto industry has a very powerful lobbying group, one that doesn't hesitate to throw about its weight when it doesn't like proposed legislation. Yet given the industry's history of stonewalling, it would be a mistake to pass a 60 mph CAFE standard. If the U.S. seriously wants to encourage consumers to start driving small cars, it needs to adopt higher gas taxes, a wildly unpopular idea with voters. History has shown that higher fuel prices are the only thing that drives U.S. consumers to smaller cars.

In Europe, they understand the connection between high gas prices and better fuel economy. Drivers opt for smaller cars, sacrificing storage space and other niceties to have a more efficient vehicle. The Ceres survey did not ask consumers if they would be willing to pay $8 a gallon gas to support the 60 mpg goal.

If it had, the survey would really be interesting.

Bottom Line
It's worth remembering that while the federal government can mandate that automakers build vehicles that get 60 mpg, they can't mandate that consumers buy them.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      The reason US does not have the the high millage diesal is because of the oil companies do
      • 3 Years Ago
      Yeah it's the buyers fault because they can't afford your 60 mpg car. How about car manufacturers and auto dealers quit being greedy and charging more for a the more fuel-efficient cars.
      • 3 Years Ago
      One big problem we'll experience if the automakers actually achieve a CAFE of 60 MPG is that cars will become so expensive it will actually be cheaper to drive old cars. In the case of today's hybrids it already is. If you compare a Toyota Prius to a comparably sized vehicle without more electronics than a Disney theme park the latter will be cheaper to own overall. The closest we've seen to 60 MPG so far was the first generation Honda Insight but that vehicle was full of compromises. The price was double of what a budget car costs and because it was a two seater insurance is higher. It's a boring vehicle, not fun to drive, A/C was only available on the highest trim level and cruise control wasn't offered. Until 2008 fuel economy was based on a nationwide speed limit of 55 and one third of the vehicles on the road were three or four speed manual, no power steering, no power brakes and no A/C. Nowadays many states allow speeds of 65, 70, 75 or even 80. Manual brakes haven't been offered since the Chevette. 2001 Chevy Metro and Suzuki Swift were the last two cars to not offer power steering. In fact, Kia Rio and Smart Fortwo are the only cars in existance still available with manual steering and A/C is almost standard across the board. Two things not taken into consideration is when the EPA tests fuel economy on a treadmill hybrid vehicles will show better fuel economy around town than the highway but it won't happen in the real world. Also, it doesn't matter how much ethanol is in gas. Any amount will cause a reduction of fuel economy by 34.4280373% and use 52.504295% more fuel to do the same work as gas without ethanol. The EPA claims a reduction of emissions at idle but if 10% ethanol in gas can mean 34.4280373% loss of fuel economy I can't see how overall emissions are less and because of the damage potential ethanol can cause I see issues with public safety. I still love the way GM advertises on TV and the radio an Equinox and Terrain gets 32 MPG and goes 600 miles on a tank of gas. Neither Consumer guide, Consumer Reports nor Edmunds have ever achieved 32 MPG in any of their tests and none of the vehicles tested achieved 500 miles on one tank of gas, never mind 600.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Oh yeah, rest asssured dude that will never happen. Ever.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I can't fathom why no one buys the festering turd that is the smart 4 2.
      toyota rolla
      • 3 Years Ago
      What a propaganda piece!! The article isn't why don't we have 200 and 500 mpg vehicles, it's that people won't buy little turd boxes that get only 60 mpg! Haven't any of you heard that it's possible to have a normal sized vehicle that gets 200-500mpg? We'd have to petition the gas companies that are squelching the technology. The people that own the gas companies also own your banks and congress, so get up and do something about it.
      Will S
      • 2 Years Ago
      I couldn't disagree more with this article writer. In 2005, we purchased a 5 seat family car that averages 50+ mpg - does the writer believe technological advances will freeze in their tracks? Back in the 70's, auto makers whined that we'd all be driving Pinto sized cars just to meet the 26 mpg standard - and we blew way past that! Bush said "America is addicted to oil" and obviously the article writer is either unaware or complicit...
      • 1 Year Ago
      I bought a brand new 1984 (in 1984) Honda CRX that got 60mpg - my best highway drive got 61mpg. Granted, it was a little two seater - but it had a HUGE back cargo area.....AND it was inexpensive!! Here it is almost 30 years later and I can't buy a 60mpg gas car in the United States. What people don't want is some complicated electric or hybred car that that costs as much as a luxury car. I sure wish I still had that car today................or better still, I wish I could buy a new one today!!
      Chris Taylor Jr
      • 3 Years Ago
      "The Ceres survey did not ask consumers if they would be willing to pay $8 a gallon gas to support the 60 mpg goal. If it had, the survey would really be interesting." I SWEAR TO GOD YOU PEOPLE ARE BRAIN DEAD. only a MORON would agree to pay $8 a gallon for 60mpg cars. WHY? because THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE between $8 a gallon and 60mpg than there is between $4 a gallon and 30mpg. are you this freaking stupid? your buying a NEW car paying MORE per gallon just to have the same sucky STINKING DOLLAR PER MILE COST ?? PLEASE tell me you people are not this STUPID. Lets see here. $4 a gallon 30mpg means a per mile cost of 13.3 cents per mile $8 60mpg equals .... 13.3 cents per mile. THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO CARS EXCEPT I HAD TO BUY A NEW CAR JUST TO PAY THE SAME STINKING ABOUT OF MONEY AND A MORE EXPENSIVE HIGHER MAINTENANCE NON DIY CAR AT THAT AND ANYONE WHO CAN NOT AFFORD A NEW CAR. OH WELL they are SCREW NOW paying 26.6 cents per mile. how STUPID can people be. raise the gas taxes. my god what a STUPID idea.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Chris Taylor Jr
        And we are brain dead? The US economy can no longer afford to subsidize gas prices. Your entire argument ignores the real cost of burning gas, the fact that the US is now dependent in foreign oil and that oil revenues fund terrorism. You typify the American public-completely ignorant of where gasoline come from, and where the money goes to keep gas cheap. The difference between 30mpg and 60mpg is that half the money is leaving the country. Gas guzzling is the most un-American activity I can think of.
          • 3 Years Ago
          most of our gas product doesn't come from overseas. 60% comes from the americas. but it doesn't matter. China and India are in the market too.
          • 3 Years Ago
          most of our gas product doesn't come from overseas. 60% comes from the americas. but it doesn't matter. China and India are in the market too.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Diesel Hybrids. Enough said. 60 MPG is easily achievable without any compromises.
        Chris Taylor Jr
        • 3 Years Ago
        I am already tickling 60mpg without diesel and without a hybrid drive. any diesel hybrid drive that gets less than 110mpg is not even worth a glance.
      • 3 Years Ago
      My Toyota Prius 2011 is getting well over the listed MPG of 48-51. I have owned it now for 4 months . After 4230miles I am averaging 54.7mpg. And the car only cost me $25,300 with taxes/plates etc
        Chris Taylor Jr
        • 3 Years Ago
        NO that car cost you more like $37,950 if you financed it at even remotely a normal interest rate. if you compare the prius to another "money saving" car say a Hyundai Elantra at $14.8k or $22.2k after interest the average american would need to driver 12,500 miles a year in that prius for just over 100 YEARS to break even in fuel savings. the prius is a waste of money if your objective is to SAVE MONEY. it can never save you ONE SINGLE STINKING PENNY unless you are a NYC cabby and pay CASH up front to avoid interest charges. even ME driving 40,000 miles a year would have to put over 1 million miles on the prius in 38 years just to break even over the elantra (or any other $15k pre interest 40+mpg car) the prius is a "feel good" I can pretend I am saving money and doing good for the environment car. IE a status symbol. sorry to burst your bubble but thems the facts.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Well, if all the tree huggers out there would let us drill our own oil, maybe we would be far less dependent on countries not so friendly to the U.S. Also, drive your Prius if you want if you like it. I personally think itt is one of the ugliest cars on the road along with the new Leaf and the Smart car. Decent sized/safe Cars and SUV's dont have to be your choice but if we want to drive them, let us and don't push to raise taxes with your democratic politicians to push your agenda! FYI, I am far more likely to assist a broken down traveler in a regular car truck or SUV than I am a prius driver!
        Chris Taylor Jr
        • 3 Years Ago
        CLUE IN. 42% of our oil comes from HERE. thats right good old USA oil. well over half the rest comes from Canada and Mexico. 16% comes from Persian Countries (middle east area) but of that 16% 11% (total) comes from Saudi Arabia our buddies. only 4% comes from the OTHER persian countries. SO gas prices have NOTHING in "reality" and "fact" to do with the middle east. AT ALL except as a convenient "scape goat" to raise oil prices. on top of that our dollar would go SPLAT if we drilled more of our own oil since out dollar is BACKED by OIL. if we drilled our own oil gas would approach $1.30 a gallon by next summer and the value of the dollar would go SPLAT.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Call the oil companies up maybe they can do some hydraulic fracing under your house. Watch the movie gasland where you can watch people light their faucet water on fire
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