Fuel economy requirements and their corollary emissions laws are becoming the central focus of modern car development as governments around the world set higher standards. The U.S. has the NHTSA working on new CAFE standards, and a study announced today reveals that the recommended path will require 4.5% improvement each year through 2020, which will put the fleet-wide average at 39.4mpg by that time.

Carmakers have so far been vocal in their opposition to the proposed CAFE standards, which previously had targeted 4.5% annual improvements through 2015, ending at 31.6mpg. But extending the requirement through 2020 will raise costs of compliance significantly with minimal environmental impact, according to the manufacturers. Environmental groups had previously called for a ramp-up to 35mpg by 2015, rather than 2020, which would be even stricter than the study now proposed by the NHTSA.

This is not the first time the carmakers have taken umbrage at the NHTSA's environmental impact projections, and the latest protests confirm the stance that the small benefits are outweighed by the huge costs, estimated by the NHTSA at more than $47 billion industry-wide, and expected to amount to significantly more than that by the industry itself.

The NHTSA's report claims the new standards will save at least 19.5 billion gallons of gasoline through 2020, preventing emission of 185 million metric tons of CO2 by 2100. However, though those numbers sound huge, the projected effect on atmospheric pollution is a drop of only 2.6ppm, while sea levels would rise just 1.1mm less that they would otherwise, and the temperature rise would be slowed by a scant 0.013 degrees Celsius, reports The Detroit News.

Nevertheless, the NHTSA is pushing ahead with the regulations. Automakers, already troubled by the weak economy, are now facing costs that can't be recuperated through higher sticker prices - even if they could find buyers able to pay them. What this confluence of events and regulations will ultimately mean for the carmakers and the driving public is uncertain, but it's likely that more trouble lies ahead.