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Gas mileage is one of the most talked about selling points in the car industry. With oil prices at a high and many people still reeling from a slow economy, the cost of driving hasn’t been a bigger concern since the 1970s. Beyond the individual consumer with a slender household budget, greater fuel efficiency is also a priority from a corporate fleet maintenance perspective. Yet even with so many people – and companies – holding their breath, the auto industry has struggled to deliver advances in fuel efficiency.

President Obama seems to think that can change, as he has now mandated that all cars and light trucks to meet a minimum standard of 54.5 miles to the gallon by 2025. The president points to advances in technology, lighter cars and promising results from overseas competitors as well as hybrid gas/electric technology as evidence that the goal can be achieved. But 54 mpg is nearly twice the current federal requirements, and that’s a long way to go. Can US auto makers really reach it?

Different Builds

Advocates of the president’s plan point out that much of the US’ current fuel efficiency lag – which is behind the efficiency standards of much of the developed world – comes not from engineering challenges but from consumer demand. The US continues to see high demand for SUVs (even for those who never off-road) and heavy pickup trucks (even when not needed for work). Muscle is a key selling feature in the US, as is large, roomy interiors. For all the griping about gas prices, consumers are slow to give up large, powerful cars in the name of the environment.

However, even the leading edge of fuel-efficient vehicles are seeing their share of setbacks.

A New Breed

Auto makers are rolling out all kinds of new green cars, but many of them are in the concept stage or unlikely to be widely marketed. Of those entering the mainstream, the Nissan Leaf is among the most popular new offerings, and has recently lowered its sticker price. But the Leaf, a fully electric car, can only travel 73 miles without recharging – and has posted losses for Nissan for its first two years on the market.

Another fully-electric darling, the Tesla Model S, claims a higher range of 265 miles – but production problems raise the question of whether it can even get to market.

Of course, these full electrics completely skirt the question of gas mileage; they use none. But Americans are skeptical of having such a limited battery range, and the idea is almost useless from a car fleet standpoint – not only do short-range electric cars fail to do what many business fleets demand, they would also require all new fleet maintenance expertise and infrastructure.

If gas-powered or hybrid vehicles are going to live up to Obama’s requirement, it’s going to take a lot of innovation and, probably, a lot of consumer demand. Without that, expect to see the auto industry appealing for exceptions to Obama’s successor.

Ashely Wilson is a part of a team of writers who have contributed to tons of blogs about cars. Follow her @AshelyMarie1985 to see what else she has to say!