Tough MPG standards likely to stay after election

Chevrolet Volt
General Motors

(MoneyWatch) President Barack Obama's reelection and the Democrats' continued control of the Senate neutralizes any chance that Republicans might try to ease federal standards requiring automakers to achieve increasingly high average gas mileage with their vehicles.

Those current standards require each company's average fuel economy to be 29.7 MPG now and 35.5 in 2016. And new just-published standards require that to rise to 54.5 MPG by 2025. These difficult to achieve numbers could have been a target of Republican anti-regulatory efforts.

New cars sold in the U.S. in October had the highest fuel economy yet, according to a study released this week by the University of Michigan Transportation Institute. The average for new vehicles was 24.1 miles per gallon, up four MPG from 2007 when researchers started tracking this data. The rising mileage results from a combination of those tightening federal standards and high gas prices prompting consumers to look for vehicles with better mileage.

Even if the Republicans had won full control and tried to roll back the standards, it wouldn't have been easy, says analyst John O'Dell. It would have required Congressional action and reversal of rules by the EPA, Department of Transportation and other agencies. "If a Romney administration had tried to roll back these rules, it would likely have been stalled for years by lawsuits and appeals from environmentalists," O'Dell told MoneyWatch.

With Obama reelected, O'Dell predicts the president will continue pushing to get more pure electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt on U.S. roads. Earlier this year, President Obama suggested that the current $7,500 federal tax credit be changed into a direct $10,000 rebate for buyers of electric cars.

Getting consumers to buy more such alternative vehicles would be necessary to meet future standards -- especially the 54.5 MPG average by 2025. In addition, it will require continuation of a trend already underway -- smaller gasoline engines with higher gas mileage, often using turbochargers to add some power.

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.