SPECIAL REPORT / A new US fuel efficiency standard finalised by the Obama administration last month will jolt America’s nascent electric car industry to life, but could leave European auto manufacturers racing to catch up, analysts and industry sources say.

From 2025, American cars and light trucks will have to achieve a standard of at least 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg) under the new regulation, higher than can be achieved by any existing fuel-powered cars, according to the US Department of Energy.

The only cars on the US market which exceed the 54.5 mpg target (measured as mpg equivalent) are at least partly powered by plug-in electricity, the US Environmental Protection Agency says.

This could spell trouble for Europe's electric car industry as a ‘thought experiment’ by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) has found that the US target surpasses its EU equivalent by some distance.

A 54.5mpg standard would be roughly equal to a 70 grams of CO2 per km (g/km) measurement, the ICCT believes, with air conditioning credits exemptions potentially taking the figure up to a maximum of 83 g/km.

The EU has only set a fuel savings target of 95 g/km for 2020, with the promise of a communication about consultations on a future 2025 targets later this year.

Matthias Abend, a clean energy executive for the German carmaker BMW, told EurActiv it was “absolutely true” that European auto exports would not be able to compete with the US, if the fuel economy gap remained so wide.

Hard target

“But 70 grams is a very hard target,” he added. “E-mobility will play an important role in this and in the electrifying of the drive frame but reaching those targets will depend on a mixture of the whole fleet – e-mobility, hybrid cars and a downsizing of the current combustion targets.”

The European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) says that meeting a target of 95 g/km will require some electric vehicles in an automobile fleet, while there will be few alternatives to full electrification for targets beyond 65 g/km.

“The US companies have understood that if they want to sell their cars domestically and globally they have to pay attention to fuel economy and they have apparently accelerated the pace at which they’re developing and deploying those technologies,” Peter Mock, the author of the ICCT paper, told EurActiv.

“It is more and more a competition issue,” he added. “Most people still think that the US has very bad fuel economy and high emissions and the Europeans are much better - and that used to be the case - but it is changing.”

Mock is a former environmental protection officer for the Daimler car company.

The new US rule – which could yet be junked if Republican Mitt Romney wins this year’s presidential election – requires companies to make 5% year-on-year fuel savings, and has been broadly welcomed by the US auto industry.

As competition hots up in the global car market, the US also has put in place a fuel standard of 35 mpg for 2016. 

The EU's proposal for a 95 g/km standard in 2020 includes a commitment to conduct an impact assessment and, if appropriate, set new targets for 2025 and 2030 by the end of December 2014.