When President Obama ratcheted up fuel economy standards in 2012, some carmakers quietly dug in their tires. The new rules nearly doubled fuel-efficiency requirements by 2025, forcing the rapid adoption of expensive new technology. A midway review in 2018 was supposed to provide an off-ramp if the technology wasn’t maturing quickly enough. But when Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, Obama moved up the deadline and locked in the new rules, with no industry input.
The shunned auto industry asked Trump for relief, and got it. Two months into his presidency, Trump reopened the midway review, and in 2020 Trump sharply reduced the 2025 target. Trump also tried to stop California and two dozen other states from setting their own mileage standards higher than federal levels. That split the industry, as some carmakers sided with Trump and others with California.
President Biden is now undoing Trump’s undoing, and once again pushing for sharp increases in fuel economy. But he’s doing it with much more cooperation from automakers, and an advantage Obama didn’t have: Electric vehicles are much further along than they were nine years ago, with every major automaker rushing EVs to market. That now makes it much easier for automakers to slash emissions across their fleets, while, ironically, allowing the government to soften efficiency targets for vehicles that still run on gasoline.
Automakers are on board
A new Biden executive order sets a target for up to 50% of all new vehicles sold by 2030 being electrified, which means they will either be full plug-ins, hybrids with both a gas engine and an electric motor, or hydrogen-powered cars. Notice that it’s a “target,” not a requirement. Biden’s target is largely in line with goals automakers have already announced, such as General Motors’ (GM) aim to fully phase out gas- and diesel-powered cars by 2035. The penalty for failing to meet the target? Nada.
Biden will also start the process of raising fuel-economy standards for gas-powered cars above the Trump levels. The Obama rules required fuel-economy improvements of about 5% per year. Trump lowered that to 1.5%. Biden will reportedly propose new rules that would require a 3.7% annual improvement.
It will take time to formulate the federal regulation governing increases in fuel economy, but the auto industry seems less likely to try watering that down behind the scenes than it has during previous battles over fuel-economy increases. Seven automakers—BMW, Honda, Volkswagen, Volvo, GM, Ford and Jeep-Chrysler parent Stellantis—provided supporting statements the White House distributed when it announced Biden’s new EV target. “We look forward to working with the Biden Administration … to enact policies that will enable these ambitious objectives,” GM, Ford and Stellantis said in unison. It’s not often automakers join hands to praise new federal regulations.
There’s a huge sweetener for automakers: Billions of dollars in federal spending to support EV development. The bipartisan infrastructure bill working through Congress includes $7.5 billion to help build EV charging stations. Biden wants more than $150 billion in additional spending on clean-car tax credits, subsidies for battery plants, school-bus electrification and other initiatives. Congress probably won’t provide all that spending, but even a portion of it would be a windfall supporting EV development that would be much risker without a huge government assist.
One sign of the coziness developing between the Biden administration and the auto industry is criticism from environmental groups hoping Biden would go further. While applauding Biden’s pending reversal of the Trump rules, some groups say he’s moving too slowly. “Setting an aspirational target of 40%-50% electric vehicle sales by 2030 is simply not enough,” the advocacy group Evergreen Action said in a statement. “The Biden administration should … drive toward 100% EV sales by 2030.” The gas-powered car is an endangered species, it's just a matter of when the extinction occurs.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.