WASHINGTON—American light vehicles from the 2016 model year will be the first to fall short of federal fuel economy targets in more than a decade, according to a new projection from regulators that could buttress a push by auto makers to ease efficiency standards.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration forecasts that the 2016 models will average 32.1 miles per gallon, below the target of 32.8. The agency forecasts another shortfall in model year 2017 of 31.8 miles per gallon compared to a projected target of 33.
The U.S. fleet has exceeded industrywide fuel economy targets every year since 2004, the oldest data available on NHTSA's website for its Corporate Average Fuel Economy program.
"If this is accurate, it contradicts what prior reports have said about the industry's ability to meet these standards and suggests that it might be more difficult to do," said Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst at IHS Markit Ltd.'s automotive group. "Once a full report is done, we might see a completely different picture."
The two-page report, dated Feb. 14, was recently posted by NHTSA and is based on preliminary data collected from auto makers that the agency cautions hasn't been verified.
The fuel efficiency standards—overseen by NHTSA, the EPA and the state of California—were toughened during the Obama administration. These standards have led to protracted debates about their value and to complaints from auto makers that they're difficult to achieve. They also follow analyses by the EPA revealing auto makers showing fuel economy gains despite booming truck sales.
Auto industry trade groups representing General Motors Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Volkswagen A.G. on Feb. 21 formally asked EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to revoke the Obama administration's decision to leave intact EPA rules to slash vehicle greenhouse gas emissions through 2025. Eighteen auto makers separately petitioned President Donald Trump on Feb. 10 to reinstate a midterm evaluation of the EPA rules.
The Trump administration is expected to reopen a feasibility review of the EPA's greenhouse gas standards for 2022-2025. Auto makers have pressed to resume the review, which they argue was ended prematurely by the Obama administration.
NHTSA's regulations require annual improvements in vehicle fuel economy and set targets for each auto maker's passenger car and light truck fleets based on vehicle size and the mix of cars and trucks sold each year. Car makers can use credits earned by selling fuel-sippers that overcomply to cover shortfalls caused by less-efficient models.
Auto makers say that's getting tougher amid surging truck sales supported by cheap gasoline. U.S. passenger car sales fell 13 percent during the first two months of the year, while light truck sales rose 6.5 percent, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
Actual NHTSA fuel economy data for model year 2015 showed the fleet average rose to 32.2 miles per gallon from 31.7 in 2014, 0.6 miles per gallon better than the target. Auto makers have overcomplied by 1 mpg or more in each year since 2011.
"We're committed to improving fuel economy, however the numbers speak for themselves," Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers trade group, said of the 2015 figures. "This underscores the challenge of being evaluated based on what consumers buy rather than what auto makers produce."