Imagine pulling up to the fuel pump in your motorhome’s “toad.” You fill up the tank and take a moment to check your fuel economy. Wow! 48 miles to the gallon! All this from your 2026 model-year run-about. That could be the take from last week’s headlines that announced the new federal government fuel economy standards for 2026. But hang on. Like the fine print says, “Your results may vary”—a lot!
The devil is in the details
The new standards were announced by Uncle Sam’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The standard has multi-purposes. One, reduce air pollution. Two, ease some of the pain on drivers’ pocketbooks. Three, reduce the country’s dependence on foreign fuel. Most folks would agree with those ideas. After all, who of us wouldn’t mind getting nearly 50 miles to the gallon?
But the devil is in the details. The new rules apply to CAFE—or Corporate Average Fuel Economy. There’s a major difference between CAFE numbers and what you’ll actually find in real life. Why so?
Simply put, that single number, 49 miles per gallon, is a goal for the AVERAGE economy of all vehicles. It’s also just an estimate that the government looks to achieve under the new rules. A Congressional Research Service document explains that such numbers are “not a requirement for every—or for any specific—vehicle or manufacturer.”
Targets, credits, and a fuzzy bottom line
While every car or truck coming off the manufacturing line will have a fuel economy target, that 49 mpg average figure is for ALL the rigs sold in a given fleet. Ford, for example, may well have cars and trucks that get less than their individual target. Other Fords may well exceed their target mileage. That means across Ford’s fleet, you should see an average of 49 miles per gallon come 2026, right? Hang on, there are more details that can devil our thinking.
The CAFE program also allows for credits. Did a company really beat the target fuel economy for a given car or truck? Then that over-performance earns them credits that can be used then, or at other times, to prop up under-performing vehicles, keeping the “fleet” average economy inside the requirement. But let’s say Ford has a bunch of credits, and its corporate wisdom says it may not ever need to use them. Ford can trade those credits to other vehicle manufacturers to prop up their own CAFE fuel economy figures.
Bottom line: When you pull up to the fuel pump with that fancy 2026 toad, don’t bet you’ll be seeing fuel economy figures anywhere close to 49 miles per gallon. The rule of thumb for comparing CAFE numbers to real-world fuel economy is to knock off about 20% from the CAFE standard. In other words, look to see around 39 miles per gallon.