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U.S. lags in a global race for fuel efficiency

Driving down greenhouse gas emissions with more fuel-efficient vehicles may be the world's greatest opportunity to combat climate change, but it will take a truly global effort to get there.

As the global middle class expands, more and more people will seek the freedom of mobility. But the more cars there are, the worse traffic jams, air quality, oil demand and greenhouse gas emissions will become.

The United States recently completed historic new fuel economy standards, but the aggressive increase in international vehicle sales could undermine any environmental benefits derived from them

"We believe we're at an energy crossroads and the stakes are high," said Kathleen Hogan, deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency at the Department of Energy, at the 5th International Environmentally Friendly Vehicle Conference earlier this month. "The global transportation system has really never challenged our economic and environmental security more than it does today."

Despite expected increases in fuel economy, the world will need to develop twice the amount of oil currently being developed in the Middle East to meet growing demand, nearly all of which will come from emerging economies, she said. The political and economic risks will increase as demand grows, she added. And the environment will suffer, too.

According to the International Energy Agency, transportation currently produces about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and that figure is en route to double by midcentury without major advances in fuel economy.

But, independent of any formal international negotiations, policies are being implemented to confront these challenges in both wealthy and emerging economies.

Global auto efficiency standards

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About this report

E&E examines how the global auto industry is accelerating the use of both old and new technologies to comply with tough new fuel economy standards, meet consumer demands and drive down greenhouse gas emissions.

Previous Stories in the Report

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Automakers explore 'lightweighting,' another route to boost gas mileage

When it comes to improving fuel economy, engines, powertrains, fuels and batteries seem to get all the attention.

But what about the car's traditional steel side panel or rooftop?

Using advanced lightweight materials on even the most basic car parts can improve overall fuel efficiency, too. According to the Department of Energy, reducing a vehicle's weight by 10 percent can improve fuel economy by 6 to 8 percent.

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Do 'game-changing' fuel cell cars have a powerful ally in natural gas?

Only movie stars and select consumers have been able to get their hands on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the United States over the past few years, but now these zero-emissions cars are poised to bust onto the scene in a big way around 2015 to 2017.

A limited number of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are available for lease today, and nearly all of them in California, where refueling stations are slowly cropping up.

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China's drive to put more clean cars on the road hits a wall

SHANGHAI -- China has a long and successful track record of scaling up its industrial growth by hitching it to a continent-size home market. This strategy turned China's wind turbine sector from barely existent to a global leading force in five years. But when it comes to clean cars, the story appears to be different.

A program designed to boost China's transition to electric cars and plug-in hybrids has been stymied. Even with generous government support, cities here have added fewer cars than promised. The goal of revving the nation's clean car mass production has also gone unmet.

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Electric vehicles, a tough sell, proliferate in showrooms

Electric drive vehicles have the potential to wean the United States off foreign oil and drive it toward an era of zero-emissions transportation, but that potential is being pushed into the more distant future by the ominous fact that most consumers aren't buying them.

Plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), which include both battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. car market. Add in hybrids, which are selling at a much faster rate, and electrified vehicle sales are still only around 3 percent.

One of automakers' greatest concerns in meeting the Obama administration's ambitious new fuel economy standards is that consumers will continue to steer clear of alternative automobile technologies, which come at a steep price premium.

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As automakers are pushed toward better fuel efficiency, they are rolling the dice

Imagine stepping into a casino, but instead of picking numbers on a roulette wheel or rolling a pair of dice, you're an automaker putting down billions of dollars' worth of chips on expensive vehicle technologies, some of them untried.

You don't have enough money to evenly spread your bets across the table, so you have to take some big risks. You will face competition from automotive manufacturers around the world and then the unknowns of consumer acceptance, cost and government policy changes.

"That's scary," said Mark Perry, director of product planning and strategy at Nissan North America. But that's how he sees the situation automakers face in meeting the White House's historic 54.5 mpg corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards for light-duty vehicles by 2025.