2012 is the greenest new automobile fleet ever. Preliminary data for model year 2012, which ended with September, show that new records have been set for fleetwide average fuel economy and the sales of hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles. Dealer showrooms feature an unprecedented choice of fuel-efficient cars and trucks and consumers are buying them. Federal clean car and fuel economy standards are also working as intended to spur automaker investment in fuel-efficiency, which is just what consumers need to protect them from the gas prices pain at the pump.
Fleetwide Fuel Economy Hits a Record High and Saves Consumers Money
According to University of Michigan researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, model year 2012 reached 23.6 mpg (window label value), which is 1.1 mpg higher than the previous record of 22.5 mpg for model year 2011.
In fact, fuel economy has been on a steady rise over the last five years, largely in response to government action. In 2007, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act that required increases in fuel economy through 2030. Regulatory standards first announced in 2009 developed the program‚Äîsupported by the auto industry, consumer groups and environmentalists‚Äîto carry out the law.
For 2012, the first year of the national clean car and fuel economy program, automakers have exceeded the expectations of the federal regulators. University of Michigan reports that for the CAFE compliance laboratory test cycle, model year 2012 vehicles averaged 29.0 mpg, topping the 28.7 mpg level projected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Environmental Protection Agency.
Recent increases in fuel economy have been a resounding success for consumers, our economy and the planet. If 2012 vehicles were stuck at the 2007 efficiency level of 20.6 mpg, drivers would be spending another $8 billion a year to buy over 2 billion gallons of additional fuel annually. Instead, consumers are saving money and carbon pollution from cars has been reduced by 25 million metric tons in 2012, which is equivalent to emissions of 6 coal-fired power plants for a year.
Improvements across Vehicle Types
Automakers are adding fuel-saving technologies across vehicle segments, from popular small and mid-size cars to crossovers, minivans and pickups. As I described in a previous post, advancements made to popular models since 2009 are saving drivers thousands of dollars at the pump. The size-based structure of the clean car and fuel economy standards requires improvements to large and small cars and trucks alike.
As auto analyst Alan Baum explains, the fuel economy increase of model year 2012 is unique compared to past instances because the recent average efficiency increase was not primarily driven by an increase in small car sales. While new small car offerings like the Chevy Cruze are very popular, improved mid-size vehicles (which grew 0.8 percent points from 2011) were also strong contributors to a better fuel efficiency average.
Model year 2012 is now in the rearview mirror and showrooms are filled with model year 2013 offerings. Baum compared the number of popular fuel-efficiency models available today compared to 2009:
Hybrid and Plug-in Electric Vehicle Break Sales Records
The last year saw a huge growth in offerings of fuel-efficient hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles. According Alan Baum, model year 2012 hybrid sales climbed 55 percent from model year 2011. Importantly, the number of hybrid models available to consumers increased by 8 in one year reaching 41 in 2012, which is nearly double the number offered just three years earlier in 2009 (22).
Model year 2012 was just the second year of availability of mass-marketed plug-in electric vehicles including the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. Sales tripled in the last year and today, there are about 50,000 plug-in electrics on the road. In the next year, automakers are poised to offer an additional 10 plug-in electric models.
Critics of electric vehicles still claim that they are failure. As my colleague Max Baumhefner points out, the numbers say otherwise, however. For example, the Chevy Volt outsells about half of all U.S. vehicle models available. Among the vehicles it beats are the Audi A3, A5 and A6, the Nissan Xterra and Titan,and several Mercedes and Porsche models. I don’t remember seeing them trotted out as market losers.
Another example: Compare plug-in electric vehicles to the launch of another big leap in car technology: conventional hybrids. The Honda Insight and Toyota Prius were first available for a full calendar year in 2001 and reached about 10,000 in sales. 2012 marks a similar point for the Chevy Volt, Leaf and Plug-in Prius, which are expected to have combined sales of about 50,000 by the end of the year and be way ahead of the initial hybrid sales pace.
Of course, more work needs to be done on cutting fuel bills, oil dependence and pollution from cars and trucks. But we are headed in the right direction on fuel efficiency and clean, alternative fuels like electricity.
We can celebrate 2012 as the first Year of the Green Car. Fortunately, the auto industry is on a pathway to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg by 2025, or nearly double the fuel efficiency of the average vehicle on the road today. Plug-in electric vehicles are poised for strong growth because they allow us to drive cleaner and on the equivalent of a buck-a-gallon gasoline. We can look forward to record-breaking years of green cars through the decade ahead.
 To reach a 1.1 mpg gain from MY2011, small cars in MY 2012 would have had to increase average fuel economy by 10 mpg; a 2 mpg increase is more likely.
Luke Tonachel is the New York-based Vehicles Analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.