The NADA has come out against high goals for fuel econo... The NADA has come out against high goals for fuel economy standards (Tim Boyle, Getty Images).

The debates over fuel economy and tailpipe emissions have been going on for so long that they're now as all-American as sleazy political attack ads and trying to outthink the Vegas line when betting on NFL games. And we shouldn't expect any of it to end any time soon.

The fuel-economy debate flared up again in the last few weeks. In early October, the Department of Transportation's (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced they will begin the process of developing tougher greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards for passenger cars and trucks that will be built for the model years 2017 through 2025. These standards will build on the first phase of the national program that already covers cars from model years 2012-2016.

A coalition of environmental groups known as GO-60-MPG jumped on the opportunity to say that, in their view, the new standards should include a target of 60 miles per gallon by 2025. For the record, an EPA spokesperson pointed out that the EPA has not said anything about a 60-mpg standard. In fact, the EPA has not yet mentioned any specific numbers.

The National Auto Dealers Association – the trade association and lobbying group for new-car dealers – responded in kind. Its president, Ed Tonkin gave a speech in Detroit, announcing the group's opposition to a 60-mpg standard, and questioned whether 60 mpg was even "doable." He also speculated that such a goal might even create a new "jalopy effect" that would force consumers to keep their old cars and trucks instead of paying a "premium" for hybrids and other high-mpg vehicles.

Federal Mandate

The EPA stresses that the new standards are a key part of the Obama administration's energy and climate security goals, which call for the increased domestic production and use of existing, advanced and emerging technologies that, says the EPA, will also strengthen the auto industry and enhance job creation in the United States.

"Continuing the successful clean cars program will accelerate the environmental benefits, health protections and clean technology advances over the long-term," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in a statement. "In addition to protecting our air and cutting fuel consumption, a clear path forward will give American automakers the certainty they need to make the right investments and promote innovations. We will continue to work with automakers, environmentalists and other stakeholders to encourage standards that reduce our addiction to foreign oil, save money for American drivers, and clean up the air we breathe."

But Tonkin sees thing differently. "If car owners decide to drive their old cars longer," he said in his speech, "wouldn't this actually hurt the environment and further threaten energy security?"

Selling The Bottom Line

Tonkin advanced the argument that, presently, consumers do not place a high value on fuel economy. "The American consumer buys products that are convenient, predictable and affordable," he said, and right now, "the most important factors for a car buyer are overall price and monthly payment."

Tonkin postulated that car buyers only care about fuel economy when gas prices rise sharply, like they did in the summer of 2008, when prices spiked up above the $4-per-gallon range. "Consumers today are not buying cars based on fuel economy. We may wish it were different. But that doesn't change anything. And good public policy can't be based on wishful thinking," he said.

Pushing The Industry

But Therese Langer, the transportation program director for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), said that the Council supports the push for higher fuel-economy standards, including a goal of 60 mpg by 2025.

"Based on various technical analyses, including those done by the EPA and DOT," said Langer, the ACEEE "believes that 60 mpg in 2025 is about the right place to be heading."

Replying to Tonkin's question, Langer said that those analyses not only show that 60 mpg is achievable, but that there are several different ways that technology can get the industry to that level. Langer noted that consumers should be excited about new automotive technologies, and that buyers stand to save thousands of dollars over the life of these new vehicles. Analyses "show substantial net savings to the consumer – that is, fuel savings minus increased purchase costs due to the technological improvements – from all pathways (being) considered," she said.

Regarding the argument that car buyers only care about fuel economy when gas prices spike, Langer advised consumers and the auto industry alike that gas-pricing volatility is one of the main reasons that we need standards to begin with. "Consumers who purchase inefficient vehicles when gas is cheap find themselves in a bind when prices shoot up again," she said.

That's why the ACEE believes that the auto industry needs a steady signal about the value of fuel economy in the long run, so that it is willing to invest seriously in technology. The auto industry also needs to be "transformed" over the next 15 years, she declared, in order to dramatically reduce oil consumption, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save consumers money at the pump, and revitalize the domestic car industry."

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