A steady stream of advanced powertrains, new fuel-efficient systems like stop/start, and more alternative fuels have helped raise fuel economy to new heights in recent years, but the latest breakthrough in energy-efficient cars may surprise you: safety technology. 

Photo Taken by Ralph Alswang email:ralswang@aol.com 202-745-0455You got it. Safety equals green. New safety systems are fuel economy game-changers, because fewer crashes mean less congestion, less fuel use, and fewer carbon emissions.

Recently in a white paper on autonomous vehicles, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) noted that “Vehicle control systems that automatically accelerate and brake with the flow of traffic can conserve fuel more efficiently than the average driver. By eliminating a large number of vehicle crashes, highly effective crash avoidance technologies can reduce fuel consumption by also eliminating the traffic congestion that crashes cause every day on our roads.”

NHTSA is referring to a new generation of energy-saving, life-saving technologies on our roads – and often these systems are money-saving and time-saving, too.

Real-time navigation in cars helps drivers keep their eyes on the road while diverting them around traffic. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that, in 2011, congestion in 498 metropolitan areas caused Americans to travel 5.5 billion hours more and buy an extra 2.9 billion gallons of fuel, for a congestion cost of $121 billion.

Adaptive cruise control is a new driver assist that automatically keeps a safe distance from the car ahead, keeping traffic running smoothly. A report by MIT estimates that a 20 percent reduction in accelerations and decelerations should lead to a 5 percent reduction in fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

The Federal Highway Administration estimates that 25 percent of congestion is attributable to traffic incidents, around half of which are crashes. Sophisticated automatic braking technology helps drivers avoid crashes, and fewer fender benders improve fuel economy since drivers spend less time idling in traffic.

In the future, autonomous cars may enhance road safety while giving us a leg up on fuel efficiency. After analyzing government data, Morgan Stanley observed, “To be conservative, we assume an autonomous car can be 30 percent more efficient than an equivalent non-autonomous car. Empirical tests have demonstrated that level of fuel savings from cruise control use/smooth driving styles alone. If we were to reduce the nation’s $535 billion gasoline bill by 30 percent that would save us $158 billion.”

With all these benefits, clearly the traditional definition of ‘fuel economy’ is restrictive and counter-productive. We can achieve much more with a broader view. Here’s how.

The federal government established a national fuel economy/greenhouse gas program with the ambitious goal to nearly double fuel economy by 2025. Our compliance is based on the fuel efficiency of what we sell, not what we offer for sale. While consumers have more choices than ever in energy-efficient automobiles, if they don’t buy them in large volumes, we fall short. So we will need every technology available to make this steep climb.

We can still squeeze more fuel savings from safety and congestion-mitigation technologies, but these systems reduce fuel use in ways not apparent in government mileage tests so the government doesn’t consider them towards meeting federal standards.

The federal government should recognize the real-world fuel economy improvements from these safety technologies. In fact, the government can encourage their deployment by allowing automakers to count the demonstrated fuel economy benefits of these safety technologies towards meeting their compliance with the federal fuel economy program.

While automakers don’t advocate speeding, we are urging regulators to put the pedal to the metal on this priority. More rapid adoption of these new technologies will help keep drivers safer, avoid traffic congestion, save time, save money, and reduce fuel use.

Mitch Bainwol is president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, www.autoalliance.org