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Fuel economy for new cars hits an all-time high

Fuel economy has improved drastically in US cars over the past decade, reaching another all-time high in August. The federal government has set new fuel economy goals for the auto industry to reach by 2025. 

Rebecca Cook/Reuters/File
A man walks past a row of General Motors vehicles at a Chevrolet dealership on Woodward Avenue in Detroit in April. Fuel economy for the US auto industry reached a new high in August, according to figures from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

In October 2007, when the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute began tracking the fuel economy of new vehicles sold in the U.S., it stood at 20.1 mpg. As of last month, the figure had reached 25.8 mpg, and it's possible that as newer, more fuel-efficient 2015 models roll out, we could see averages closer to 26.1 by October -- a full six-mpg gain in seven years.

To get such numbers, UMTRI gathers sales stats from automakers, then figures in the combined city/highway fuel economy ratings commonly found on window stickers. Though it's not a 100-percent accurate means of calculation -- the staff have to make some educated guessed about model years, and fuel stats from low-volume brands like Lamborghini are entered in one lump average, regardless of model specifics. Still, it's very interesting data.

For those who might see these figures and worry about the federal government's new fuel economy standards for 2025 and think, "We'll never make it!", take a breath. Those standards are based on corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, which is different from "real world" or "window sticker" fuel economy (which can themselves be very different things, especially when it comes to hybrids). 

The formulas used to calculate CAFE are complicated, taking into account production volume, fleet-wide fuel economy averages, and other factors. (Electric and extended-range vehicles can make the math even fuzzier.) The important thing to know is that those formulas yield numbers significantly higher than "real world" fuel economy.

The good news is that UMTRI has recorded a record-high CAFE figure in August, too: 31.3 mpg. That's substantially higher than the 24.7 mpg recorded in October 2007. Is CAFE climbing fast enough to reach 54.5 mpg by 2025? If it were to maintain its present rate of growth, probably not, but an expected influx of hybrids, electric cars, and other advanced-tech vehicles could cause sharp upticks down the road. We'll keep you posted. 

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