New Auto Emissions Rules Have a Loophole You Can Drive a Light-Duty Truck Through

Make SUVs and light trucks as fuel-efficient as cars or get rid of them.

Pickup truck and our subaru
Two different sizes, and two different fuel economy standards.

Lloyd Alter

The Biden administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have revised the existing greenhouse gas emissions standards for passenger cars and light-duty trucks. Essentially, they have rolled back the rollbacks that the Trump administration implemented on the tough standards set in the Obama administration. How any business can plan ahead under such yo-yo circumstances is another story.

The new rules recognize that the problem has changed from fuel economy to carbon emissions, and regulate carbon emissions in grams of carbon dioxide per mile (CO2 grams/mi)—because mixing two measurement systems makes so much sense, rather than miles per gallon as they used to. But they infer there will be fuel savings as well, enough that the fuel savings over the life of the vehicle will be greater than the increase in the cost of the vehicle.

According to the press release:

"These ambitious standards are cost-effective and achieve significant public health and welfare benefits. The benefits of this rule exceed the costs by as much as $190 billion. Benefits include reduced impacts of climate change, improved public health from lower pollution, and cost savings for vehicle owners through improved fuel efficiency. American drivers will save between $210 billion and $420 billion through 2050 on fuel costs.  On average over the lifetime of an individual MY 2026 vehicle, EPA estimates that the fuel savings will exceed the initial increase in vehicle costs by more than $1,000 for consumers."

But when you follow the footnotes in the regulatory update, you find that one thing hasn't changed. Something we have been writing about for years: Light-duty trucks, the official name for SUVs and pickup trucks, are still treated differently, as they have been since 1975 when fuel economy regulations were first imposed. It may have once made sense to treat light-duty trucks differently than cars when they were actually working vehicles, but as Brad Plumer noted a decade ago in The Washington Post, "Automakers quickly realized that they could build more SUVs and light trucks (as well as cars designed to meet light-truck standards, like the Subaru Outback) in order to sidestep the rules."

standard for emissions

EPA Regulatory Update

Note how the standard is for a Fleet Average Target Projection* cranked up to 161 CO2 grams/mi in 2026, with estimated miles per gallon equivalent, and a "real world" estimate assuming that everyone is speeding with the AC cranked up. But also note that "all values calculated using the final rule updated fleet mix of 47% cars and 53% trucks in MY2026."

compliance targets

EPA Regulatory Update

And look at this: The 161 CO2 grams/mi is based on the combined fleet average, with passenger cars hitting 132 grams/mi and light-duty trucks 187 grams/mi, which is even higher than the 2022 standard for cars. This is the "light-duty truck loophole" that lets the U.S. auto industry continue to sell bigger and more profitable SUVs and pickups, that are allowed to pump out 41% higher CO2 emissions than passenger cars.

The switch from measuring fuel economy to measuring carbon emissions raises another point, the same one that came up in the building industry: embodied or upfront carbon emissions, which are proportional to the weight of the vehicle, just as the operating emissions are. So we have a double whammy of carbon by having this double standard.

Fred data on cars

Federal Reserve Economic Data

And how do they predict that fleet mix of 47% cars and 53% trucks? Most manufacturers don't even make passenger cars anymore; the only one Ford sells now is the Mustang. They are selling an F150 pickup every 35 seconds. Sales of cars are probably less than 47% right now; they will likely be a lot less in 2026. So it makes no sense to treat them differently and has proven counterproductive. As Marcus Gee wrote in The Globe and Mail, wondering how they took over the roads:

"For heaven’s sake, why? Most people no longer use pickups to haul bales of hay. They drive them to the mall to shop or the soccer field to drop off their kids. Why anyone thinks they need such a beast to do that is an abiding mystery."

It is an abiding mystery why we are still maintaining a double standard when it comes to safety and fuel economy. We have written many times that the rules should be changed to make SUVs and light trucks as safe as cars or get rid of them. It's time now to get rid of the double standard and make SUVs and light trucks as fuel-efficient as cars or get rid of them.