The White House on Wednesday announced new tailpipe emissions rules aimed at slashing the amount of CO2 and other harmful pollutants that America’s cars will produce over the next several years. The long-awaited standards should push the nation’s auto market farther in the direction of electrification and hybridization while saving drivers serious cash at the gas pump. 

The rules are a big deal for the broader battle against climate change, too. Transportation accounted for 29% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, more than any other sector. Light-duty vehicles—that is, the cars, pickups and SUVs Americans drive on a daily basis, and not semis or airplanes—comprised the majority of that. 

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Biden's new tailpipe targets

The EPA just released long-awaited final rules governing auto tailpipe emissions for the 2027-2032 model years. The standards don't mandate EV sales, but rather allow car companies to reduce their fleet-wide emissions however they see fit. 

Here’s the lowdown on what the Biden administration is calling the “strongest-ever pollution standards for cars”—and, importantly, what they mean for you. 

What’s in the new rules?

The Environmental Protection Agency beefed up tailpipe emissions rules that automakers need to comply with, on average, across the vehicles they sell in the U.S. The agency established two more stringent standards that manufacturers must meet if they want to avoid fines. One governs CO2 emissions, while another aims at other pollutants harmful to human health, like particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. 

The new regulations apply to light- and medium-duty vehicles, the latter being defined as larger pickup trucks and vans. They take effect starting with the 2027 model year and get stricter over time through the 2032 model year. They should push automakers to sell far more conventional hybrids, plug-in hybrids (which can travel a short distance on battery power alone) and fully electric vehicles. 

2023 Toyota Prius Prime

The pollution standards dovetail nicely with the broad range of other Biden administration initiatives aimed at boosting domestic sales and production of clean cars. Between $7,500 purchase incentives for new plug-in cars, billions to expand charging infrastructure and tax credits for battery manufacturers, Biden has implemented a wide array of carrots. Now come the sticks. 

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“From a policy perspective, this is textbook perfect,” said Ingrid Malmgren, policy director at Plug In America, an EV advocacy group. “It has regulations, but it also has all the incentives and policies to drive this change from a positive perspective too.”

What does this mean for car buyers?

The rules could save you a lot of money and result in a greater variety of cleaner cars at dealerships. 

Improved efficiency and an uptick in EVs should translate to lower fueling costs for drivers. The EPA estimates that someone who buys a 2032 model year car will save $6,000 in fuel and maintenance costs over the lifetime of that vehicle. It also reckons that the standards will allow Americans to collectively spend $62 billion less per year on gas, maintenance and repairs. Electric vehicles require less upkeep than gas cars. They don’t need oil changes, for example. Electricity also tends to be much cheaper than gas on a per-mile basis. 

Consumer Reports came to a similar conclusion, finding in an initial analysis that the EPA’s rules will save U.S. drivers a collective $1.6 trillion from 2027 to 2050. The research accounted for reduced fueling and maintenance costs along with declining vehicle prices. 

The regulations should push automakers to achieve greater economies of scale in EV production, pushing down manufacturing costs, said Chris Harto, a senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports. That will be especially important for lifting up the companies that have lagged behind in EVs, he said. 

2025 Mercedes Benz GLC 350e PHEV

Lighting a fire under car companies will also drive innovation, Malmgren said. That should result in cheaper, better EVs over time, as well as improvements in hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars, she said. Prices for electric cars are dropping, but many of the most desirable options are still expensive. Many don’t offer the kind of range or charging speeds that buyers want. 

The rules should not only push automakers to sell more EVs but also to squeeze more efficiency out of their gas and hybrid powertrains, Harto said. Today’s hybrids deliver $5 in lifetime fuel savings for every $1 increase in vehicle price, he said. 

“There's a ton of off-the-shelf, cost-effective technology that automakers just aren't deploying because they don't have to,” he said. 

The EPA thinks that will change, projecting that consumers “will see an increase in the availability of other clean vehicle technologies, including hybrid electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, as well as cleaner gasoline vehicles.”

What does this mean for the air and climate?

After pushback from automakers and dealers who argued they needed more time to ramp up EV manufacturing and sales, the EPA landed on a more gradual ratcheting down of emissions than it initially proposed last year. Importantly, though, the final rules wind up in basically the same place in 2032 as they did in the initial proposal. The EPA projects that between the 2026 and 2032 model years, overall tailpipe carbon emissions for light-duty vehicles will be roughly cut in half. The first few years of targets ramp up less aggressively than in the EPA’s initial proposal, giving car companies some breathing room before tighter rules kick in. 

The agency estimates that the rules will eliminate 7.2 billion metric tons of carbon emissions through 2055, roughly quadruple the transportation sector’s total emissions in 2021. The projected reduction in smog- and soot-forming emissions should also combat illnesses stemming from bad air quality, the EPA said.  

Tesla EVs at V4 Supercharging station. From left: Model 3, Model S, Cybertruck, Model X and Model Y

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council cheered the new rules. 

Is Biden banning gas cars or mandating EVs? 

Nope. White House officials have stressed that the rules are technology-agnostic. Car companies need to abide by emissions caps for each model year, but how exactly they accomplish that is entirely up to them. Some may lean heavily on EVs, while others may choose to push hybrids and plug-in hybrids. 

The EPA projects that the lowest-cost path to compliance for automakers in 2032 will be the following mix of light-duty sales: 56% EV, 13% plug-in hybrid, 3% hybrid and 29% combustion-engine. Last year, hybrids, EVs and plug-in hybrids together accounted for 16% of U.S. sales. 

This reinforces what’s already been happening in the car industry: A rapid acceleration in battery-electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid sales. And it lines up with Biden’s goal of 50% EV sales in 2030. 

Can Trump just throw this all in the garbage if he gets elected?

Not really. Congress has 60 days after a rule is enacted to repeal it by a simple majority. After that, doing so becomes much more complicated and time-consuming. 

As president, Donald Trump eventually succeeded in rolling back Obama-era emissions standards and replacing them with his own EPA’s more lax rules. But that didn’t happen until 2020, near the end of his term. 

Still, it’s all but certain that, if elected, Trump would seek to undo key parts of Biden’s climate agenda, including these pollution standards. November’s election will decide whether the rest of this decade delivers more wins for the climate and EVs—or relentless efforts to slow things down.

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