Study Shows Nearly Nine in 10 Americans Want Better Fuel Economy, But There's a Problem

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
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study shows nearly nine in 10 americans want better fuel economy but there s a

A recent study from Consumers Union — the public policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports — shows continued interest among U.S. residents in seeing automakers improve fuel economy figures, even as gas prices remain fairly low.

While this should come as a shock to no one, nearly nine in 10 surveyed consumers agreed automakers should continue improving fuel efficiency standards on all vehicles. As well, only 30 percent believed manufacturers actually cared about lowering fuel costs for their customers.

This might be true but, then again, why would automakers do such a thing when the general populace has essentially turned its back on economical passenger cars? With little incentive to sell them, especially if the Trump administration alters 2025 emission targets, any top-tier automaker focusing exclusively on building MPG-focused automobiles would be placing itself at major financial risk.

The survey indicated fuel economy as the area perceived to possess the most room for improvement in modern vehicles. However, consumers have not used their wallets to bolster economy car sales. There appears to be a disparity between what the public claims to value and how it actually behaves. At a minimum, consumers may have misunderstood everything it would take to see fleet-wide fuel consumption decline. If they want to see higher MPGs, they’re going to have to make some sacrifices and the survey doesn’t allude to that fact.

Number one, with a bullet, is to settle for less automobile or shell out additional money. Fuel efficient cars already exist — they’re called economy cars. While I’ve never owned one myself, I’ve driven plenty and they are perfectly serviceable modes of transportation. However, North America is abandoning them. Subcompact sales are already down 17 percent in the United States this year and aren’t expected to bounce back as crossovers occupy more of the market every single day.

Alternatively, shoppers can purchase an electric vehicle, but we all know how that’s going. Even with federal tax rebates, EVs remain a comparably expensive niche item and often serve as a second vehicle to homes that can easily afford them. They will come down in price eventually, but that could take over a decade to accomplish. In the interim, electric cars will continue to be smaller, more expensive, and force consumers to sacrifice driving range and convenience.

The only other option is to force automakers to implement fuel-saving technologies on the types of vehicles customers actually want to buy. Data from Consumers Union showed 87 percent of the Americans surveyed agreed automakers should continue to improve fuel economy and 73 believed the government should mandate higher standards for vehicle efficiency.

“Consumers see the value in fuel efficiency, and the technology more than pays for itself through fuel savings,” said Shannon Baker-Branstetter, policy counsel for Consumers Union. “As automakers increase vehicle efficiency, consumers benefit from greater savings.”

That’s true, especially if you are moving from a real gas guzzler to something substantially more efficient. However, let’s do some crude math to see how this plays out in the long term. The survey stated 79 percent of Americans believed increasing fuel economy from a real-world average of 25 mpg today to 40 mpg in 2025 is a worthwhile goal. Assuming fuel prices suddenly ballooned to $3 per gallon, the average person driving a 25 mpg vehicle would eat up $1,440 driving 12,000 miles annually. Someone getting 40 mpg would spend $900 a year. While that only equates to about ten bucks a week in savings, it’ll add up over the lifetime of the vehicle.

Here’s the problem: you’ll usually just break even. The Toyota RAV4 starts at $24,410 while the hybrid variant starts at $29,000 and only improves average economy in town, not on the highway. It also doesn’t come anywhere close to 40 mpg — admittedly, no SUV does. If consumers want to see that kind of rating, they’re going to have to shoulder even more technological development costs or welcome affordable, lightweight cars back into their lives. A Mazda3 can manage 37 mpg on the highway right now, and all for under $20,000. Otherwise, shoppers will have to wait for SUVs and crossovers to catch up and continue to pay a premium for cutting-edge engine tech.

By some measurements, car buyers will have to pay anyway. Hybrid and electric units are typically several thousand dollars more expensive than traditional internal combustion models, but the latter is set to become more expensive while the former gradually decreases in price. “We have two curves,” Gilles Normand, Renault’s senior vice president for electrics, explained in a May interview. “One is EV technology cost reductions because there are more breakthroughs in the cost of technology and more volume, so the cost of EVs will go down. ICE going to go up as a result of more stringent regulations especially regarding to particulate regulations.”

In the end, consumers who genuinely care about the environment or saving money at the pump should look at how they’re spending their own money. Passenger cars make up only 37 percent of the U.S. marketplace, and those sales are dropping fast. The solution to fuel economy woes is already out there in the form of petite and inexpensive hatchbacks — models that would be much more popular if people were serious about their convictions.

Instead, many want to have their cake and eat it too — which is something automakers are working on. The industry knows the public likes larger vehicles and doesn’t want to return to Nixon-era fuel economy, but we’ll have to meet automakers halfway if we want them to work a miracle.

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

Consumer advocate tracking industry trends, regulation, and the bitter-sweet nature of modern automotive tech. Research focused and gut driven.

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3 of 74 comments
  • Steve65 Steve65 on Jun 30, 2017

    Number one with a bullet is that people need to stop demanding magic solutions, and just pay attention and learn how to drive. Watch traffic the next time you're on a moving freeway. (freely moving heavy traffic, not stop and go) Count the number of times you see brake lights. If you need to brake on the freeway, you probably weren't paying attention or thinking more than 20 feet past your front bumper. If you're regularly braking on the freeway, you're definitely doing it wrong. Things as simple as lifting off the accelerator if you're closing on a slowing car, or not mindlessly mimicking another car's 10-15 mph random speed variations will produce tangible meaningful improvements, without spending a dime on complicated advanced technology.

    • JimC2 JimC2 on Jun 30, 2017

      "Count the number of times you see brake lights. If you need to brake on the freeway, you probably weren’t paying attention or thinking more than 20 feet past your front bumper." YYYYES!! I would support computer monitoring that makes these people's insurance or taxes higher! Call it a slinky penalty. Just being facetious. OK, not completely facetious...

  • Kosmo Kosmo on Jun 30, 2017

    The actual headline should read: Survey shows that people want the VEHICLE THEY CHOOSE to get better mileage than it currently does. Note that recent surveys (polls) showed Trump receiving an absolute maximum of 207 electoral votes.

  • Ernesto Perez There's a line in the movie Armageddon where Bruce Willis says " is this the best idea NASA came up with?". Don't quote me. I'm asking is this the best idea NY came up with? What's next? Charging pedestrians to walk in certain parts of the city? Every year the price for everything gets more expensive and most of the services we pay for gets worse. Obviously more money is not the solution. What we need are better ideas, strategies and inventions. You want to charge drivers in the city - then put tolls on the free bridges like the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. There's always a better way or product. It's just the idiots on top think they know best.
  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.
  • FreedMike Many F150s I encounter are autonomously driven...and by that I mean they're driving themselves because the dips**ts at the wheel are paying attention to everything else but the road.
  • Tassos A "small car", TIM????????????This is the GLE. Have you even ever SEEN the huge thing at a dealer's??? NOT even the GLC,and Merc has TWO classes even SMALLER than the C (The A and the B, you guessed it? You must be a GENIUS!).THe E is a "MIDSIZED" crossover, NOT A SMALL ONE BY ANY STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION, oh CLUELESS one.I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THE NONSENSE you post here every god damned day.And I BET you will never even CORRECT your NONSENSE, much less APOLOGIZE for your cluelessness and unprofessionalism.