The current presidential administration is weighing the safety advantages of heavier cars as part of its strategy for relaxing fuel economy standards.
As it currently stands, the average fuel economy goal for 2026 is 46.6 miles per gallon. The Trump administration is weighing the possibility of dropping that to just 37.7 miles per gallon according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) documents obtained by Bloomberg. According to these documents, 61 percent of vehicles would have to make use of battery electric or hybrid technology to meet the Obama-era goals, while the Trump target would necessitate only 10 percent.
It seems incredibly unlikely that California — the only state that is legally allowed to buck the EPA guidelines in favor of more stringent ones — would tolerate a backward shift of this magnitude, even with the projected drop in highway fatalities facilitated by these heavier vehicles; around 1,200 per year from 2036 through 2045. Since the Obama changes took place in 2009, tailpipe emissions standards and fuel economy guidelines have been linked.
The White House is banking on the safety benefits of heavy vehicles.
“It’s clear that in order to stay competitive globally, the US auto industry needs to keep pace with the rest of the world. That’s where California is moving,” said Stanley Young, spokesperson for the California Air Resources Board. “It is unwise for the federal government to set the clock of automotive technology back a decade.”
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found a correlation between heavier vehicles and increased safety, but that doesn’t account for the inclusion of various safety technologies. It would stand to reason that the reason that the US has seen a continuous drop in road deaths over the past decades has been due more to the advancement of both active and passive safety technology and its widespread adoption throughout the automotive industry.
The safety argument for heavier vehicles really only works one way, with the party in the lighter of two vehicles being involved in a collision getting the short end of the stick. Left to its own devices, this kind of thinking could easily end up with all of us driving land speed racing cars that weigh 8,000 pounds because brinkmanship knows no bounds.
Relaxed fuel economy standards promise short term gains for automakers.
Another study, done by the National Academy of Sciences in 2001, found that the downsizing of vehicles during the 1970s and 1980s may have accounted for between 1,300 and 2,600 deaths in 1993. This study went on to suggest that fuel economy targets be put on a sliding scale based on vehicle weight. The 2009 NHTSA fuel economy guidelines took this somewhat to heart and instituted the idea of basing a vehicle’s fuel economy target on its physical footprint, or the area between the wheels. When the NAS revisited its study in 2015, it found that many of its concerns had been addressed by the 2009 changes.
“The Obama-era changes to the rules, essentially using a sliding scale for fuel economy improvements by vehicle footprint, addressed safety concerns that IIHS raised in the past,” said Russ Rader, spokesperson for IIHS. “IIHS is supportive of the fuel economy standards as implemented.”
NHTSA representatives have said that it will issue a notice of proposed rulemaking by March 30, 2018, which means we still have to wait a while to see if any of this actually happens or simply remains conjecture.