Experts have already predicted that toughened fuel efficiency standards will lead to cleaner air and help wean the United States from its reliance on foreign oil. Turns out, they could benefit consumer's wallets too.

That's the conclusion of the Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America, which briefed reporters on Jan. 12 in preparation for a series of three public hearings that begin today, January 17, in Detroit on the new 54.5 mile-per-gallon standard currently under government scrutiny. That is the fuel economy average the Obama Administration wants automakers to achieve by 2025. There are two more hearings this month, one in San Francisco and one in Philadelphia.

The two consumer organizations said the new standard will save the average driver approximately $3,000 over a decade of ownership. Both groups said they would endorse an agreement between the Obama administration and automakers to implement the new standard by 2025. But there is a lot of chatter in the auto industry about whether this is a standard that American car buyers are really interested in.

On one hand, 80 percent of consumers say they are interested in owning a hybrid or electric vehicle, according to a recent study by Consumer Reports. On the other, recent sales figures show they are buying an increasing amount of SUV and crossover vehicles as they get used to gas prices hovering around $3.50 per gallon for regular.

What gives?

In the context of what happens when automakers start producing vehicles that meet toughened fuel efficiency standards, that's a multi-million dollar question. Some skittish industry insiders fear a gap will develop between what's being sold and what customers want.

That's not necessarily the case, says Dr. Mark Cooper, the director of research for the Consumer Federation of America. He said the 54.5 mpg standard won't favor smaller vehicles.

"These standards have no bias against size," he said Thursday. "If you want to buy a big vehicle, it will be there. It will have to be more fuel efficient, and that is exactly the point. People will still love their SUVs, and they'll love them a lot more when they get 40 miles per gallon."

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