Are auto makers doing enough to improve fuel efficiency?

Molly Peterson/KPCC

CODA Automotive, now based in West L.A., will be at the Auto Show with a much-larger, similarly-slick display that resembles what the company's installed in the Century City mall to reach out to the public.

The Los Angeles Auto Show opens to the public today through Thanksgiving weekend.

KPCC asked people in our Public Insight network what they wanted to know about cars. Here are some of the answers.

Dozens of people wrote in about fuel efficiency. What are car companies doing to improve it? Why aren’t they doing more?

Chair of the California Air Resources Board Mary Nichols regulates the automakers. She says they are improving combustion engine efficiency, years after they suggested they could do little more.

"The gas mileage turns out to be way better than anybody thought," she said. "It could be because they find new ways of manufacturing, they’re using new materials and they’re just optimizing everything to make them more efficient."

They do work harder each year to make sure you know that. At the Auto Show Thursday, Nielsen gave out something called the Automotive Green Marketer Award for just the second time. Ford won for emphasizing miles per gallon in its ads.

Those big car companies that make hybrids or electric cars like to brag about fuel efficiency. But sticker price? Not so much.

Phil Murtaugh left GM to be CEO of L.A.-based electric carmaker Coda Automotive. He says the big boys are having a hard time switching over to hybrids and EVs.

"Their ability to do so is somewhat limited by the infrastructure they’ve already got invested in building engines and transmissions that deliver today’s fuel economy," Murtaugh says. "What makes CODA different from everybody else is we’ve gone whole hog."

Murtaugh's “Whole hog” is whole new cars from the tires up. Those who haven’t gone whole hog still are staring down new fuel efficiency standards.

Within 14 years, Obama Administration willing, each automaker will have to meet a federal standard called CAFE which, by then, will require an average of 54.5 miles per gallon across the fleet. They’ll get credits for trying to do that, but alternative technology will raise the bottom line.

So the Air Resources Board’s Mary Nichols says the big driver for fuel efficiency for a while will be good ol' competition. "They’re all into it. And it’s not because government is forcing them to do it," she says. "It’s because they believe that’s what consumers are going to be wanting in the future and nobody wants to be left behind."

Bottom line, the industry isn't where environmentalists want it to be. But it could be doing more than you think.

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