AMERICAN DRIVERS will soon be able to confirm what they always suspected: Their cars aren't as fuel-efficient as those stickers in the windows say. But although the federal government is ready to give consumers more accurate information, it remains unwilling to use that information to demand better fuel efficiency in cars.
Federal standards require an automaker's fleet of passenger cars to average 27.5 miles per gallon. The industry meets that standard only because the Environmental Protection Agency calculates automobile averages using assumptions that are optimistic, to put it kindly.
Last week, however, the EPA revised its formula to reflect real-world driving conditions. As a result, the fuel-economy figures that consumers see on the window stickers of 2008 model cars will be on average 10% lower than the current ones. Gas-electric hybrids, criticized for delivering poorer gas mileage than advertised, will see a far steeper drop, about 25%. In addition, starting in 2011, the EPA will require guzzlers such as Hummers to have gas-mileage stickers, something from which they've been exempted on the fantasy that they were being used as commercial trucks.
These are all reasonable and welcome changes. But their effect will only be seen on the window stickers of new cars. That's because the more important fuel-efficiency rules, known as the CAFE standards (it stands for corporate average fuel economy), will remain unchanged.
CAFE standards require automakers to make more efficient cars instead of merely requiring them to disclose their cars' efficiency (or lack thereof). The Transportation Department calculates them using the EPA's figures. But the department calls the new and improved EPA figures an "adjustment," and it will use the old numbers to measure compliance with CAFE standards.
The EPA's new system isn't completely irrelevant. With fuel prices high and likely going higher, consumers will probably continue to seek out cars that get better gas mileage. And as consumers make choices based on more accurate numbers, automakers might feel pressured to produce more efficient cars. Or not. Despite the popularity of hybrids -- which still get excellent gas mileage even if it's not as high as many drivers expect -- many automakers have resisted producing cars with new technologies that could dramatically improve gas mileage.
The 27.5-mpg standard has been technologically feasible for decades. If the Transportation Department won't hold Detroit to higher standards, then Congress should by stepping in and telling it to use the EPA's more accurate numbers.