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Do U.S. drivers care about improving mpg?

April 11, 2014
The average fuel economy of new cars sold in the U.S. hit another all-time high in March, reaching 25.4 mpg. But do Americans really care?
The fuel-economy data comes from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, which has been tracking the fuel consumption of new cars since October 2007. In its first study, the national average was just above 20 mpg. Last month, Corporate Average Fuel Economy hit 31 mpg.
The green-minded also should be happy to know that auto emissions still hover near record lows. There was a small uptick from February’s all-time-low stats, but the distance Americans drove crept up slightly in March, so it’s not surprising that emissions ticked up, too. (Americans drive about 3 percent fewer miles annually than they did in 2007.)
The real questions here are (1) Why is fuel economy increasing, and (2) Who cares?
The answer to item No. 1 is simple: science, competition, and federal regulations. The answer to item #2 also is fairly straightforward: "very few people, that’s who."
Technology is giving consumers the ability to go farther on a gallon of gas. Smarter engines, hybrid powertrains, and lighter vehicles mean that some cars easily reach 50 mpg. As gas prices continue to rise, offering cars with higher fuel economy gives automakers a competitive edge. And of course, don’t forget the very important fact that the Environmental Protection Agency will require automakers to have a fleet-wide CAFE of 54.5 mpg by the year 2025.
The world’s car buyers obviously make note of gas prices, and there’s data to suggest that fuel economy remains the top criteria for new-car shoppers. 
However, while that may affect consumers’ choices within a certain segment — say, jumping from one carmaker’s crossover to another’s — that doesn’t mean that consumers are going to move to a completely new style of vehicle — say, from an SUV to a compact. A 2012 study revealed that 42 percent of shoppers would refuse to change the type of vehicle they drive, even if gas were to hit $10 a gallon.
That headstrong attitude, paired with the current construction surge, helps to explain why sales of pickups and SUVs are booming, even though the national average for a gallon of regular unleaded is $3.57. Sales figures probably would relent a bit if gas edged above $4, but the cynics have a hunch that any slump wouldn’t last long.