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How Car Companies Will Meet Obama's New Fuel Standards

By 2025, cars and trucks sold in the United States will have an average fuel efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon, using technologies that exist today.

President Obama announced today that by 2025 the cars and trucks sold in the United States would have an average fuel efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon. The White House says vehicles that use less gas and emit less carbon will save consumers $1.7 billion over the course of the program, which starts in 2017. (The 2011 standard is 28.3 mpg.)

It’s an ambitious goal, although not as ambitious as the 60-plus mpg standard environmental groups were pushing for. Car makers were in on the deal, but they’re still a bit wary of it, which is one reason why there’s a check-in point midway through the program that would allow the government to adjust the standard. But one of the strongest points of the standard is that getting to 54.5 mpg won’t require any dramatic breakthroughs. Car makers should be able to meet the program’s goals with existing technologies.

Here’s what we can expect to see:

Better engines. Car companies have a few tricks up their sleeve for making engines more efficient, and they’ll start using them. One of the creepiest things that hybrid engines do is turn off and go dead silent when the car is idling. But conventional engines can do this, too, it turns out, and car companies will likely add that technology to more cars. They’re also talking about relying more on turbochargers, which boost the power of engines by compressing the air that goes into them. They’re fueled by exhaust energy, so they don’t require extra gas to run. Turbochargers mean that automakers can put lighter, less thirsty engines into cars, while keeping the vroom-factor high.

More hybrids of all sorts. This program is not a secret yuppie plot to force real Americans to buy a Prius. But according a 2010 assessment by the federal government, somewhere between 24 and 46 percent of new cars sold will have to be conventional hybrids. The standards program does include incentives for “mild hybrids”—basically, hybrids that have smaller electrical engines than conventional hybrids and are therefore cheaper—and hybrid pick-ups.

Lightweight materials. Both private companies and the Department of Energy have been investing in the development of lightweight materials that are just as strong as the steel commonly used in car construction now. Heavier cars have to burn more fuel, so any decrease in a vehicle’s weight helps fuel efficiency.

Higher sticker prices. Revamping cars with these technologies does cost money. The EPA estimates that it will cost $2,400 per vehicle to meet the yearly increase in efficiency. That means that anyone planning to buy a car will pay more at the point of sale. But because the cars will use less gas, consumers will fork over less cash at the gas pump. The hope is that those savings will more than make up for the cars’ higher sticker price. The White House is projecting that by 2025, a car owner will save $8,200 on gas, compared to a similar 2010 model.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Andrew Taylor, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

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