When Detroit's CEOs return to Washington, DC in early December for further Congressional hearings on a rescue package, the industry's prospects for meeting tougher fuel economy standards are likely exert significant influence on the granting of federal assistance. When I was writing last Monday's posting on "Detroit, Bailouts and Fuel Economy", the CAFE database of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which administers the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, was undergoing maintenance. That meant I couldn't calculate the impact of this year's shift in the sales mix of the Big 3 on their fleet fuel economy. The numbers indicate that simply selling fewer SUVs and more of their existing car models, without any major changes in technology, is already yielding significant fuel savings. In addition, the figures for the leading Japanese brands indicate what might be possible for GM, Ford and Chrysler, simply by offering fewer V-8 and V-6 engines and selling more four-cylinder cars. That's a good thing, because the latest survey from R.L. Polk & Company suggests that hybrids will still make up less than 6% of US new car sales in 2012.
NHTSA tracks fuel economy for every automaker in three categories: domestic passenger cars, imported passenger cars, and light trucks. The latter includes most SUVs. These data, in combination with the year-to-date auto sales figures through October, facilitate some quick spreadsheet analysis revealing the key factors differentiating the fuel economy performance of the big US carmakers from their competitors, such as Toyota and Honda. For example, for the 2007 model year, the US companies averaged a combined 24.9 miles per gallon, while the US models of these two Japanese firms averaged 30.2 mpg. That gap is attributable to two components, neither of which comes as a surprise. The Japanese passenger cars averaged 5 mpg better than their US counterparts, helped considerably by their imported hybrid models. The passenger cars made in these firms' US factories averaged just under 3 mpg better than their US peers.
The other big influence comes from the relative sales mixes of these companies. Of the combined 2007 sales of GM, Ford and Chrysler, nearly 65% were "light trucks", comprised of SUVs and pick-up trucks. Such vehicles only made up 42% of the sales of Toyota and Honda. That's particularly significant for fuel economy, because the Big 3's light trucks turned in fuel economy ratings averaging 7 mpg lower than their passenger cars, while the light trucks of Toyota and Honda were 10 mpg worse than their cars.
With gas prices that surged past $4 per gallon this summer, 2008 has produced some modest but encouraging shifts in fuel economy. SUV sales are down much more than those of passenger cars, for both US and Japanese makes, while the cars and SUVs sold tended to be from the more economical models within their respective categories. This has improved the average fuel economy of the Big 3 by 0.4 mpg, year-to-date, with 75% of that improvement coming from the shift between passenger cars and light trucks, which fell to 63% of Detroit's mix. Toyota and Honda saw an even bigger fractional change in light trucks, with the drop to 38% of sales helping to boost their combined average by more than one full mile per gallon.
Why do these figures matter in the context of a bailout of Detroit? Last year the Congress passed, and President Bush signed, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which among its many provisions included an increase in the federally-mandated new-car fleet average to 35 mpg by 2020, including both passenger cars and light trucks. Given the emphasis during the recently-concluded election campaign on both energy independence and greenhouse gas emissions, Congress appears concerned that a bailout of Detroit should not be viewed as providing any leeway on fuel economy. So it's important to understand whether achieving 35 mpg would require a technological revolution that might be beyond the resources of the cash-strapped domestic industry. Encouragingly, the figures above suggest otherwise. If the Big 3 merely matched the 2008 passenger-car performance of the top Japanese brands (35.5 mpg) while reducing their light truck sales proportion to 25%--the level that prevailed in the US car fleet prior to 1990--they would be three-fourths of the way toward achieving their 2020 CAFE target.
As helpful as advanced-technology cars like the upcoming Chevrolet Volt would be for speeding up that transition, simply by shedding the least-efficient SUVs and offering peppy four-cylinder engines as the standard across most of their product lines, Detroit could deliver greatly-improved fuel economy, of the kind the Congress and new administration are seeking. Just as important, considering the priority that US consumers have placed on vehicle performance in the last decade, European-style turbo-diesels, better gasoline-engine technology, and hybridized drivetrains can deliver these gains at an mpg-vs-power trade-off that car buyers should find much more palatable than the one we were forced to accept in the early 1980s, the last time high oil prices focused US policy-makers on automotive fuel economy to this degree.
I don't want to make this change sound easier than it is likely to be. Reducing SUV sales by the necessary extent would require re-tooling on a massive scale, sending ripples through the North American auto supply chain that might be nearly as dramatic as the bankruptcy of one or more of the Big 3. Consumers are leading this shift today, and they must be willing--or encouraged by new policies--to stay the course. The fall of gasoline prices back below $2 per gallon, if it persists for more than the next few months, will work against that. If a rescue or restructuring is to succeed, it must result in a new mix of products that are globally competitive and not just more fuel-efficient, but also profitable to make and market. That argues against embedding expensive, unproven technology in millions of cars, until Detroit is strong enough to stand behind the warranties that will be crucial to selling them.