WASHINGTON -- Automakers are being pushed to build a more fuel-efficient generation of gas-electric hybrids, turbocharged engines and advanced vehicles powered by electricity under tough new standards from the Obama administration.
Final rules to be signed Thursday by the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency come after carmakers posted modest gains in the distance a car can travel on a gallon of gas.
The rules require 2016 model year vehicles to meet fuel efficiency targets of 35.5 miles per gallon combined for cars and trucks, an increase of nearly 10 mpg over current standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The EPA, issuing the first rules ever on vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, will set a tailpipe emissions standard of 250 grams of carbon dioxide per mile for vehicles sold in 2016, or the equivalent of what would be emitted by vehicles meeting the mileage standard.
"After decades in which we have done little to increase auto efficiency, those new standards will be completed, which will reduce our dependence on oil while helping folks spend a little less at the pump," President Barack Obama said Wednesday.
Each auto company will have a different fuel-efficiency target, based on its mix of vehicles. Automakers that build more small cars will have a higher target than a car company that manufacturers a broad range of cars and trucks. The standard could be as low as 34.1 mpg by 2016 because automakers are expected to receive credits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in other ways, including preventing the leaking of coolant from air conditioners.
Environmental groups had pushed for curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, blamed for global warming, and challenged the Bush administration for blocking a waiver request from California to pursue more stringent air pollution rules than required by the federal government. The request was granted by the Obama administration last year.
Automakers have supported the plans for a single federal standard and have been working on an assortment of fuel-efficient technologies, including hybrids, electric cars and technologies that shut off engine's cylinders when full power isn't needed.
Nissan is releasing its electric car, the Leaf, later this year while General Motors is introducing the Chevrolet Volt, which can go 40 miles on battery power before an engine kicks in to generate power. Ford is bringing its "EcoBoost" line of direct-injection turbocharged engines -- and their 20 percent improvement in gas mileage -- to 90 percent of its models by 2013.
Obama said the new requirements will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the program, which will cover the 2012-2016 model years. The new standards come four years ahead of a 2007 energy law that required the auto industry to meet a 35 mpg average by 2020.
The extra costs could be recouped in gasoline savings. The administration estimated last year the requirements would cost up to $1,300 per new vehicle by 2016 but would take three years to pay off that investment, saving more than $3,000 over the life of the vehicle through better gas mileage.
"What these rules are going to mean is more choice for consumers, more options for consumers to fight high gas prices, to address global warming and have good, clean safe cars," said David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.