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Will new fuel standards mean bigger vehicles?

As an industry dependent on selling products that are towed behind cars, SUVs and light trucks, we’ve long been concerned about increasing CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards and the likely result that vehicles will be made lighter with reduced safe towing capacity.

Those concerns were escalated when the Obama administration announced doubling the current 27.3 mpg CAFÉ standard by 5 percent per year to a shocking 54.5 mpg by 2025. A guaranteed prescription for much lighter vehicles ahead, right? Perhaps not. In fact, vehicles may get bigger because of two things: consumer demand and an unheralded twist in the rules.

That’s the unique conclusion of a study reported by the University of Michigan’s News Service for its College of Engineering. CAFÉ will likely lead to bigger vehicles, more light trucks and SUVs!

The study examined market surveys of what vehicle buyers want and determined drivers prefer larger vehicles for the room, comfort and safety. Recognizing auto makers will build what buyers want, the study combined an examination of the formula used to establish target mpg and bingo – there is the loophole.

In actuality, it’s the formula for setting mpg that is also the loophole. The numbers cited as the CAFÉ standard are just averages. It really works this way: Each manufacturer must meet a CAFÉ standard based on the “footprint” of the vehicles they build. (The “footprint” is determined by multiplying a vehicle‘s track width by its wheel base). Therefore, every carmaker is allowed to meet a different standard. That’s because prior to 2007, the CAFÉ standard was the same for every carmaker, but it put some key manufacturers at a big disadvantage. So an attempt was made to level the playing field between those building everything from small cars to big SUVs and pickup trucks, and those manufacturers that build only small, economical cars. After all, the latter could easily meet CAFÉ standards the big makers would be hard pressed to reach. The result was the “footprint” provision that allows larger cars and light trucks that cross predetermined length-by-wide points to meet lower CAFÉ standards.

It certainly draws interest, if not a grin, that while there’s a big push for higher CAFÉ standards, auto makers can circumnavigate the fuel efficiency requirements by increasing a vehicle’s footprint. Does it mean larger vehicles with better towing characteristics and safety are in our future? I don’t know. But the good news is the possibility is both real and encouraging, particularly in light of the striking increase to 54.5 mpg demanded by the administration.

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