Last week, the Obama administration made a dramatic announcement that unfortunately got lost in all the hoopla over the debt ceiling and the political maneuverings thereof. They announced a new set of ambitious fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks that will make a significant dent in our dependence on oil and our carbon dioxide emissions. These new standards require a 5% annual improvement for cars, and 3.5% for light trucks for the first five years, then 5% after that. The end result is the fleet average fuel economy for each automaker will be 54.5 mpg by the year 2025.
This is impressive negotiating, considering that in 1974, when the first standards were announced, the fleet average fuel economy was 13 mpg. This quickly rose to 27.5 mpg during the seventies, where it languished until President Obama took office. This year they hit 30.2 mpg and will hit 35.5 by 2016.
The administration worked closely with 13 manufacturers representing 90% of all vehicles sold in the US, the auto workers unions and the State of California, which has always been on the cutting edge of automobile standards. All players are to be commended on this agreement, which took a great deal of willingness, a keen spirit of cooperation and a frank recognition of the emerging necessities of tomorrow to achieve. (If only their counterparts in Congress had displayed the same level maturity in their wrangling over the debt limit…)
The fact that 54.5 mpg will be the fleet average means that some cars will be below that while others will need to be considerably higher. This will surely include a mix of hybrids, plug-in hybrids and all-out electrics. Information on calculating fuel economy for electric cars can be found here. The Chevy Volt is rated 95/90 City/Highway in electric mode and 34/40 with gasoline. The Nissan Leaf is rated 106/92 with a combined mileage of 99 mpg.
According to the information provided by the administration, this new standards will save 12 billion barrels of oil, eliminate 6 billion metric tons of CO2, and save car owners $8200 in fuel costs over the life of each vehicle for a total of $1.7 trillion in fuel cost savings (based on today’s oil price assumptions).
As impressive as these numbers sound, two questions still need to be asked. First, given the increasing severity of the global warming crisis, are these cuts sufficient? According to 350.org, the current atmospheric concentration of CO2 (393.69 ppm), is already too high. Climate scientists, led by James Hansen of NASA, feel we need to stabilize at a level no higher than 350 to avert catastrophe. That means the level of CO2 in the atmosphere needs to decrease from where it is today. In order to do that, we need to not just reduce the amount of emissions, but to reduce them enough that the level emitted is less than what can be absorbed by our remaining forests and other natural mechanisms. That way the level can begin to decrease.
So is 54.5 mpg by 2025 really the best we can do? Our friends at the Rocky Mountain Institute, claim that the targets could and probably should be much higher. They claim that 54.5 mpg can be readily achieved by simply tweaking current designs. But this, they point out, is a moment for bold action. Ever since they developed their prototype Hypercar, an SUV that can achieve 106 mpg, they have been promoting the virtues of vehicle light-weighting, using such advanced materials as carbon fiber composites and aluminum to reduce vehicle mass, enabling smaller powertrains which further reduce vehicle mass through a process they call “mass decompounding.”
Greg Rucks, an RMI transportation consultant, says, “We are currently on the tail end of a 100-year learning curve, where we see design improvements flattening out. Instead of wringing the last bit of innovation left in current designs, the same amount of innovation and design effort could be more productively applied toward revolutionary autos that exceed 100 mpg with better safety and performance. Automakers who recognize this early will be in the best position to capture market share.”
One of the principles that the folks at RMI seems to keep rediscovering is the limited potential of incremental change, which is what most companies are willing to consider. Far greater possibilities can be realized when we step back far enough to totally re-imagine the problem with new eyes.
This is the kind of innovation we need, not only to put America back at the forefront of technological innovation, but to save our planetary support system as well.
[Image Credit: BC Gov Photos: Flickr Creative Commons]
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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