Why Is Average Fuel Economy Getting Worse in America?

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If you’re an automaker, you loved the April sales reports. Gains of 5% over the strong numbers from a year ago left carmakers with their best month in nearly a decade, as SUV sales powered the industry. On the flip side, sales of hybrids continued to struggle, once again being victimized by low gas prices. As a result, average fuel economy got worse over the month among new vehicles, according to a study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

Just how good were sales for makers of popular utility vehicles? Ford reported 78% gains for its Edge SUV, boosting the automaker to its best April since 2006. Chevrolet reported 51% gains for its crossover line, with the Equinox and Trax among vehicles setting records for the month. Toyota was no different, with RAV4 sales (up 22%) and Lexus SUV sales (up 23.5%) powering another strong month for the world’s top-selling manufacturer.

It’s fairly easy to tie these numbers together with the report by UMTRI. According to the monthly accounting of average fuel economy from new vehicle sales, April featured 25.2 miles per gallon on window stickers across the board. Only one month (December) has been worse than that total over the past 13 months. The decline is visible just as gasoline prices started dropping late in 2014, following the peak of fuel economy at 25.8 miles per gallon in August.

While the shift down in overall vehicle efficiency could be considered a passing trend, a new study from Harvard University shows how much damage small changes in emissions can have on public health in America.

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Researchers from Harvard and Syracuse University found that EPA plans for reducing carbon dioxide emissions per the Obama administration’s plans could save 3,500 lives per year, the Associated Press reports. The study calculated the numbers based on the projected drop in heart attacks and lung disease that would result from lower smog levels.

While the EPA’s plans to improve air quality focus on power plant emissions, the connection between smog levels and automobile emissions is well documented. The AP reports three top science officials from the George W. Bush administration have praised the Harvard study at least in part on its ability to match emissions reduction to American lives saved.

Unfortunately, the U.S. auto consumer is acting on the natural impulse to enjoy the cheap gas prices while they last, and do so in the comfort of a new SUV. Car companies will enjoy record sales months for as long as this trend lasts, but the decrease in fuel economy and public health consequences cannot be ignored. Expect the government to have the Harvard study close at hand the next time automakers ask for loosened emissions standards.

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