02/05/2014 07:16 pm ET Updated Apr 07, 2014

Not Your Father's Ride: Fuel Economy Standards Upgrade Consumer Choices

*Co-authored by Jack Gillis, director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and author of The Car Book.

January is a big month for the rollout of new consumer products. The two most important shows highlighting the latest and greatest -- the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the North American International Auto Show in Detroit -- got rolling within weeks of each other.

And as the shows show, automakers are making new cars that go farther on a gallon of gas, offering consumers lots of choices, and making cars that are fun to drive. At the Consumer Electronics Show, Ford's solar-paneled electric car and Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are turning heads. And as EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy put it when she saw the many fuel-efficient models on offer at the Auto Show in Detroit, automakers "are trying hard. They are working. They are investing."

Thanks in large part to fuel economy standards on the federal level and clean car standards in California, the average fuel economy of new cars hit an all-time high of 24.8 mpg in 2013, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. That's up a full mile per gallon compared to 2012.

These standards are providing automakers with long-term incentives for giving consumers the tech-savvy, fun and fuel-saving cars they want. These days, shoppers can choose from dozens of models with a combined city/highway fuel economy of 30 mpg or more. And compared to five years ago, they can choose from twice as many SUVs that get 25 mpg or more.

Larger vehicles are getting in on the trend, too. The truck-heavy fleets of GM and Ford increased fuel economy by six and seven percent respectively over the past three years. Last year, Ford offered a record setting eight models, delivering 40 mpg or better. And in 2012, GM sold more than one million vehicles that get 30 mpg or more.

As for cutting-edge technologies, the market for electric vehicles is still in its infancy, but sales are growing faster than hybrid cars did in their first years on the market. From 2011 to 2013, sales of electric vehicles increased five-fold. Nissan, one of the first companies to bring an electric vehicle to market, increased sales of its Leaf by 130 percent last year. And consumers can choose from 16 different plug-in cars, with more on the drawing board.

All this means more choice, less spending at the gas station and more money in consumers' pockets. The EPA figures federal standards that aim for an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 will save consumers $1.7 trillion in fuel costs average fuel savings of more than $8,000 over the life of a vehicle.

Now that's definitely not your father's ride!

And then there's the cool factor. It might seem impossible that you'd ever drive a car whose solar roof can recharge its battery, like the Ford plug-in hybrid C-MAX Solar Energi featured at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. And the Toyota FCV, also featured, whose hydrogen fill-ups take just three minutes and have a 310-mile range, might seem impossibly futuristic.

But that's just how exotic the VCR once seemed when it first showed up at the Consumer Electronics Show, or how "out there" the first hybrids seemed when they debuted in Detroit -- and now one is old technology and the other is commonplace. It happens time and again: products start out somewhere between magical and impractical, and end up becoming everyday tools. When business uses technology to answer consumer demand, the results can change the world.