BY GIANNAVOLPEWhen it comes to designing new cars, CAFE is king―and not the kind where you order a meal.CAFE, or Corporate Average Fuel Economy, is the number of miles per gallon that car manufacturers must meet when averaging the fuel economy of their entire fleet of passenger vehicles and light trucks, or else incur a stiff penalty.These federal regulations, first enacted by Congress in 1975, are largely responsible for the leaps and bounds made toward developing more fuel-efficient―and now even fuel-independent―vehicles in the last few years, local car dealers say.No matter where consumers decide to buy a new vehicle, they will find improvements in fuel efficiency in nearly all makes and models.“The new CAFE regulations have a goal of 36.6 miles per gallon in 2016 and 55.5 mpg in 2025, which is a long way off from where we are today at 27 and change,” said Stuart Schoener, general manager at Storms Motors in Southampton. “Manufacturers have chosen different paths in order to get there, but at the end of the day we’re all making huge strides in fuel economy very quickly. In addition to hybrid and electric cars, transmission and energy technologies are being developed to make the regular gas engine car way more efficient. For example, transmissions were three-speed automatics 20 years ago, and now we have General Motors and Ford working together on a 10-speed automatic.”Mr. Schoener said the strict new CAFE regulations, which were announced by the Obama administration in August 2012 and have been endorsed by all 14 car manufacturers, also will cause a bump in the use of diesel as a fuel source for some passenger vehicles. “Chrysler does not seem to be headed down the road of electric cars,” he said. “They seem to be heading in the diesel direction. Americans have never been open-minded to diesel, but it’s about to be rammed down theirthroats." Manufacturers will be hit with huge penalties if they don’t meet these requirements―so huge, some of them could ultimately be prevented from existing. It’s the reason Porsche and Volkswagen merged as a company. Porsche doesn’t build cars that are fuel-efficient, so they merged to raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy of the fleet.”Other manufacturers are devoting significant resources to the development of fuel-efficient and electric cars. American car manufacturer General Motors, for example, took the plunge with the Chevy Volt, a car with a loyal following referred to in the industry as the “Volt cult,” said sales manager Les Corwin at Buzz Chew Chevrolet-Cadillac in Southampton.“The Volt is a little different than other pure electric vehicles, because it has a gas generator in it that kicks on to produce electricity after the battery dies,” said Mr. Corwin. “The battery has a range of about 40 miles for commuters, but you can’t get stuck in it because as long as you have fuel in it, it’s like any other car.”There is always the risk of running out of power in a fully electric car. Driving beyond the range of the car’s battery life, which for most is about 100 miles, could leave the driver stranded.At Otis Ford in Quogue, marketing manager Tom Otis IV said the limited range of most purely electric cars, like the Ford Focus Electric, have made them less appealing to buyers looking for a primary vehicle, and more attractive to those who are locally based. “The Focus Electric is more of an around-town vehicle and would make sense for people in this area, because you could leave it here for weekends,” he said. The car has a range of about 75 miles, which, according to industry calculations, translates into the equivalent of 105 miles to a gallon. If the driver lives locally, he or she “could go back and forth to work every day and never fill up a tank of gas for the lifetime of the vehicle.”Mr. Otis said some commuters who make the daily trek to Manhattan have opted to buy an electric or hybrid vehicle to gain access to HOV lanes.He noted that it’s worth taking the time to research your needs and the rules of the road. “Our regular non-plug-in hybrid C-Max can’t go in the HOV lane, because you now need to have a plug-in hybrid in order to get access [to the HOV lane] when you buy a new car,” he said of the advantage to investing in a hybrid-electric vehicle. “We have people who buy the C-Max Energi specifically for that reason.”And though some argue against electric cars by citing the exorbitant cost of electricity―Long Island has some of the nation’s highest electric rates―Mr. Schoener said those costs are easily canceled out by equally high fuel costs in the area.“We’re talking about the relative cost to run your car in Southampton, so we don’t want to compare the cost of electricity here to the cost of gas in South Carolina,” he said. “We pay as much extra for gas as we do for electricity―if not more―so it balances out. And gasoline is also a lot more volatile from a price point than electricity, because it hits people immediately. When the gigantic meltdown we had in this country was $5-a-gallon gas, it hit you before the end of the week. You buy one of these plug-in electric cars and, depending on how many miles you drive, the nature of the drive and the accessibility to voltage, you can last a month without making a trip to the gas station.”Electric vehicles can be charged using standard 110-volt outlets. A Ford C-Max Energi will get a full charge if plugged in overnight. That time can be cut down to four hours by installing a 240-volt charging station at home. The number of 240-volt charging stations in public places is rapidly growing and can now be found at some restaurants looking for a novel way to bring in customers.The future of electric cars is, however, uncertain. “Electric cars are not the future, they are the means to an end,” said general sales manager Frank DeBlanco at Apple Honda in Riverhead. “I think in the future, cars are going to run using hydrogen fuel cell technology, which is currently in the research and development stage.”Improvements in the performance, and the style, of alternative fuel vehicles is a priority of most car manufacturers, mostly because of increasing fuel consumption standards, but also to tap into a growing market of consumers who care about environmental issues.One manufacturer also recognized a need to offer a luxury version to the lineup. Tesla, a California-based car manufacturing upstart, this year released the Model S―an electric car that can go 265 miles on a single charge―a range that leaves most market competitors in the dust.Advancements in electric and hybrid car technology is moving at a fast pace. “I think people should lease cars for the next four or five years, because the technology is moving so quickly,” suggested Mr. Schoener of Storm Motors. “Three years ago, in order to get 40 miles to the gallon, you had to buy the tiniest car you could find. Now you can drive out with a full-sized sedan that gets 40 miles to the gallon―and we’re only at the bottom of the hill. We’re only getting around 30 mpg, and we have to get to 55 average in a little over a decade.”Mr. Schoener said the increasing size of the fuel-efficient vehicle shows him that larger vehicles stand to benefit the most from the developing technology, because they have the room to hold enough batteries giving them a longer range.It is possible that eventually alternative fuel powered vehicles will become the standard―and all of us will be waving as we pass a gas station.