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Consumer Groups Says Cars Should be 60 MPG by 2025. That's a Stretch

Is it realistic to think that cars can average 60 miles per gallon by 2025? The Consumer Federation of America thinks so, having issued a report Thursday calling on the Obama Administration to make that lofty goal the end point of its pending 2017 to 2025 fuel economy greenhouse gas standards. I think it's a bit of a stretch, and it would make the auto industry howl in pain. We'll only get there with a big increase in zero-emission EVs, and there's absolutely no guarantee of how many are going to be on the road.

Keep in mind that we're talking about the average fuel economy of everything on the road, including big SUVs and monster trucks. And Americans are showing no sign of giving up on really big vehicles.

The federal combined mileage standard for 2005 was 25 mpg, and it's likely to rise to 27 mpg for 2010 (that's a tentative figure). The standard rises to 34 mpg by 2016, and that's a number that the carmakers acquiesced to in an all-smiles meeting last May. But virtually doubling that figure will be a big challenge --especially if electric cars don't catch on in a big way.

Jack Gillis, author of The Car Book and a spokesman for CFA, said, "Not only is it reasonable to expect carmakers to achieve 60 mpg, it's economically feasible. We looked at the cost benefits to consumers of increased fuel efficiency, rather than the environmental benefits that are also clearly there. It will cost more to make cars fuel efficient, but it will more than pay off in reduced operating costs."

Mark Cooper, the author of the report, says that standard gas cars can definitely achieve 50 mpg by 2025 with more efficient internal-combustion engines, lightweighting, and other on-the-shelf technologies. Add in hybrids, battery EVs and "a certain amount of electrification," and you're up to 60 mpg. "The technology is here," he said, "and the only question is how you can get it into the fleet."

Cooper said that CFA's analysis shows that the 35.5-mpg standard for 2016 "left more than $100 billion in consumer savings on the table." Gillis said they should have gone to at least 38 mpg. If those same consumers were driving 60-mpg cars, they'd save $3,000 over the lifetime of the vehicle, CFA estimates.

John DeCicco, a University of Michigan professor, released a study this week in which he said that 74 mpg is doable by 2035, but only 52 mpg by 2025. "If you begin adding electric cars into the mix, you can get into that [60 mpg by 2025] range," DeCicco told BNET Auto.

But there's absolutely no guaranteeing how many EVs will be on the road in 2015, or 2025. The size of the early-adopter market is a complete unknown in 2015, and we can only guess at 10 years after that.

According to Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, 60 mpg by 2025 is "a number to make headlines." He said, "A process is in place with NHTSA and the EPA that looks at a number of factors, including technical feasibility, cost, safety, and the impact on jobs. It's important that decisions about future standards be based on science, and not on arbitrary estimates."

Territo says that automakers have no idea which technologies are going to be popular with consumers -- next year, let along 15 years from now. As he points out, "The question of whether we meet the standards is based not on the vehicles we offer, but on what people actually buy." He said that automakers are struggling to meet the 2016 goal against such obstacles as consumers buying 25,000 fewer hybrids in 2010 to date than they did in 2009.

Getting to 60 mpg is in part dependent on the slow death of the internal-combustion engine, and it's proving pretty robust so far.

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