Law & Order


A federal appeals court in California rejected fuel-economy standards established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for model year 2008–2011 light trucks, vans and SUVs. The court ruled that the NHTSA had made several errors in the rulemaking, such as a failure to adequately weigh the economic benefits of reduced carbon-dioxide emissions if the agency had issued stricter corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards and a failure to limit the total number of large vehicles that could be produced under the standards. The lawsuit was brought by four environmental groups and 13 states and cities. 

At issue is the NHTSA’s new size-based fuel-economy program for light trucks, vans and SUVs. Under the program, CAFE rates are based on the vehicle’s footprint as measured by wheelbase—the bigger the footprint, the lower the mileage requirement. The actual total mileage rates achieved will vary depending on the mix of trucks sold by each automaker. Manufacturers that sell smaller vehicles will have higher CAFE requirements than those that sell larger vehicles. The automakers have the choice of working within the new size-based system or continuing to meet a traditional total fleet average. The fleet numbers are 22.5 mpg for 2008, 23.1 mpg in 2009 and 23.5 mpg in 2010.

The appeals court criticized the NHTSA because the rule did not mandate a minimum fleet average “backstop,” thereby preventing manufacturers from producing large numbers of bigger vehicles. The court also said that the NHTSA had failed to revise the definitions of light trucks and automobiles to better distinguish between vehicles, such as certain SUVs that may be primarily designed to transport passengers rather than haul heavy loads or tow trailers.

The NHTSA’s 2008–2011 CAFE regulations will remain in effect while the agency reconsiders its rules, a process that may take years since the automakers must be given at least 18 months lead time before stricter standards are set. For additional information, contact Stuart Gosswein at or 202/783-6007, ext. 30.