The old test, developed in 1971 and updated in 1985, "assumed an average highway speed of 48 miles per hour and a top speed of 60 miles per hour [even though] there are no longer any states with a rural speed limit under 60 miles per hour," explains Don MacKenzie, a vehicle engineering expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It's important to have standards that reflect real world driving patterns."
Other changes include greater congestion, greater use of air conditioning, cars with faster acceleration, and an increased amount of time spent idling in traffic.
"If you're stuck in traffic and you're not moving, then you're getting zero miles per gallon," MacKenzie notes.
New fuel economy stickers developed by the EPA will display highway and city driving mileage in large type on either side of a graphic of a gas pump. In the center of the gas pump, the EPA will place the vehicle's annual estimated fuel cost based on 15,000 miles driven per year.
"EPA's new fuel economy sticker ensures American motorists won't be stuck with higher-than-anticipated charges at the pump," said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson in a statement.
The EPA estimates that starting in the 2008 model year, the average stickered gas mileage for city driving for cars and light trucks will fall by 10 to 20 percent, and as much as 30 percent for some models. Estimates for highway mileage are expected to drop 5 to 15 percent on average, and as much as 25 percent for some models.
Gas mileage for hybrid vehicles will decrease by 20 to 30 percent for city driving and 10 to 20 percent for highway driving. For example, the average city/highway fuel mileage of today's Toyota Prius design is expected to fall from 60/51 to 44/44 by 2011, with other high-mileage hybrids such as the Honda Civic expected to drop dramatically as well.
"We expect to exceed the federal government's 2007 fuel economy standards for domestic and import cars and light duty trucks," Ford Motors' Kristen Kinley said in response to e-mailed questions.
Ford has been a primary target of environmental campaigners because its cars and trucks get the worst gas mileage of any automaker's. The company's current fleet gets fewer miles per gallon on average today than its Model-T did 80 years ago, says the Jumpstart Ford campaign, a coalition promoting public actions to press the company to improve its vehicles' gas mileage.
Nonetheless, Ford supported the new EPA rules.
"We support providing consumers additional information to help them with their purchase decision," Kinley said. "However, one must keep in mind that the EPA values are only estimates. Driving behavior, vehicle maintenance, road conditions, and many other factors impact fuel economy."
The move would appear to put many automakers out of compliance with federal law, however. Regulations mandate the U.S. fleet of cars and trucks average 27.5 miles per gallon. Even before the EPA developed the new test, regulators put the average fuel economy of America's vehicles at between 24 and 21 miles per gallon.
"The difference between 27.5 miles per gallon and 22 miles per gallon means the difference between a dependency on Mideast oil and no dependency on Mideast oil," the Bluewater network's Russel Long told OneWorld.
"We import about 20 million barrels of oil per day," Long said. "When you work out the differences, it turns out we can get rid of all our Mideast oil dependence if we could just do what Congress mandated in 1975."
Long said his group, which petitioned the EPA for this rule change in 2002, is now considering suing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to force it to compel automakers to make more fuel-efficient cars. Long thinks any solution will have to come from the courts.
The incoming chair of the House Energy Committee, Democrat John Dingell of Michigan, has received over $800,000 from the auto industry during his 17 years in Congress, including $238,000 from General Motors, $203,000 from Ford, and $128,000 from DaimlerChrysler.
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