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Safety gains from heavier cars may be cited to cut MPG rules

Ryan Beene and John Lippert, Bloomberg News on

Published in Automotive News

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration is said to be reviewing the safety advantages of heavier cars -- a point of controversy among researchers -- as it considers lowering future automotive fuel economy targets by as much as 23 percent.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is evaluating the implications of weaker targets as the Trump administration and California regulators discuss the fate of ambitious standards charted under President Barack Obama, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg News.

One advantage of the change the agency cites in the documents would be a potential drop in highway deaths, which have been stubbornly rising in recent years.

For example, one scenario in the draft NHTSA analysis would permit an average fleetwide fuel economy standard of 35.7 miles per gallon by 2026, down from a 46.6 miles per gallon under the Obama-era target. Traffic fatalities would be reduced by an average of nearly 1,200 per year from 2036 through 2045, according to the analysis.

NHTSA officials are considering highlighting those safety implications when the agency releases a range of proposed future fuel economy standards, according to a person familiar with the matter. A spokeswoman for NHTSA didn't respond to a request for comment on the documents.

NHTSA Acting Administrator Heidi King said in January that the agency would issue a notice of proposed rulemaking on March 30. The Environmental Protection Agency plans to decide by April 1 whether its separate tailpipe emissions standards for cars and light trucks for model years 2022 through 2025 should be revised.

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The documents show the factors that NHTSA officials are considering as they prepare to put fuel economy rules in place at least for model years 2022 to 2025. They also provide a glimpse into the talks involving NHTSA, the EPA and California regulators as they decide the fate of one of the Obama administration's signature environmental policies.

NHTSA first enacted its Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. In 2009, they were linked with tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions standards set by the EPA and the California Air Resources Board under a deal brokered by the Obama administration.

Weakening the standards could set the Trump administration on a collision course with California environmental officials, who have vowed to defend their own efficiency standards.

On Saturday, the Air Resources Board said it hadn't received a formal proposal from NHTSA and so couldn't comment specifically. The state remains convinced that California is helping U.S. manufacturers remain competitive by prodding them to invest in electric cars and other fuel-saving technologies, according to Stanley Young, an ARB spokesman. The U.S. government would be taking an "unwise" step if it rolls back its requirements now, he said.


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