Can you drive 60 by 2025?

A big-name green coalition wants to dramatically improve fuel efficiency in America

Will Sacramentans get 60 miles per gallon fuel efficiency on Highway 50 someday?

Will Sacramentans get 60 miles per gallon fuel efficiency on Highway 50 someday?

A growing number of environmental groups are calling on the Obama administration to go for the gold—an average of 60 miles per gallon in America’s car fleet by 2025, ramping up the standards considerably from the 35.5 mpg cars will have to attain by 2016.

Among the groups united in asking for 60 by 2025 in a press conference last month are the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Environment America, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Safe Climate Campaign, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists and 13 others. The Consumer Federation of America kicked it off September 2, by saying that 60 miles per gallon is “economically achievable and truly responsive to consumer needs.”

“This is a new opportunity to make our cars even cleaner and more efficient,” said Nathan Willcox, global-warming program director at Environment America. “Americans want cars that go farther on a gallon of gas. They want our country to use less oil. They want our politicians doing more to address the problem of global warming, not less.”

The number 60 makes good strategic sense, but many agree that 60 mpg is more so a good starting point for negotiations than a probable end point.

Were manufacturers to achieve 60 mpg by 2025, it would be a 71 percent jump in what is known as corporate average fuel economy. Cars and trucks reached their highest fuel economy in 1987, and many companies opt to pay fees instead of attaining CAFE standards.

“We’re just asking the automakers to do what they already know how to do,” said David Friedman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He cites such technologies as turbocharging, six- and seven-speed dual-clutch transmissions, lightweight materials and better air-conditioning systems as one way to get there. He isn’t relying on electric-vehicle penetration, estimating that only 10 to 15 percent of the cars and trucks on the road by 2025 will be E.V.s and fuel-cell vehicles.

But as Charlie Territo of the Auto Alliance, which represents 13 automakers, explained that it’s one thing to offer green cars, and another to get consumers to buy them. Obviously, environmentalists love electric cars, but it’s a giant unknown how many consumers will actually take one home over the years. And CAFE for cars has to take into account all of the Tahoes, Escalades and Durangos out on the roads, which will be there for years to come.

Still, many argue that automakers need to be pushed as far as they can go with fuel economy. The 60 by 2025 fuel-economy coalition is going to launch a website, fund public-opinion research, and buy print and online ads—which is a savvy and smart campaign. Some experts say that they ultimately might end up with 50 mpg as the 2025 CAFE goal, after negotiations, which many say would be a good compromise. The Toyota Prius gets 50 mpg now, but it doesn’t have a lot of company. Bringing everything up to its level represents an admirable stretch.

The environmentalists, though, bristle a bit at the idea that 60 mpg represents a starting gambit. They’re deadly serious about it. They think America can get there. They’re going to be flogging it.

“We’re going to demonstrate the overwhelming support for increasing the standards,” said Debbie Sease, national campaign director at the Sierra Club.

And, as of last week, it appears the White House has their back: The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation have proposed a range of numbers, from 47 to 62 miles per gallon, for their 2025 fuel-efficiency goal.

The federal government will reveal its final number sometime in 2011.