Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Attainable Goals?

The Supreme Court decision on greenhouse gases that I discussed in yesterday's posting dealt with regulating emissions from cars. The Wall Street Journal published an interesting virtual debate on the attainability of such emissions reductions, pitting Robert Lutz, head of product development for GM and an auto industry icon, against the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS.) The UCS has come up with a mini-van design that they claim would meet all of the requirements of the California emissions standards that carmakers are suing to block, and would do so with existing technology--without hybridization--while costing only an additional $300 per vehicle. Is it possible to build a car that, as UCS claims, requires essentially no compromises on the part of US consumers, or would stricter federal and state fuel economy standards require us to buy cars that won't meet our expectations of space or performance? Mr. Lutz appears skeptical, and so am I.

The UCS mini-van design is clever, taking advantage of available features such as cylinder deactivation, variable valve timing, direct fuel injection, and turbocharging. I have no doubt that it could be built. Where they stretch credibility, however, is in suggesting that you can do all of this for hardly any extra cost. Anyone who has ever bought a car with a choice of engines, transmissions or other options should be deeply suspicious of that claim. If a stereo upgrade can run you $300, it's hard to see turning a plain vanilla 6-cylinder into the "engine of the future" for anything less than a couple grand.

In addition, two of their strategies for reducing vehicle emissions look highly problematic. First, they want to make every car a flexible fuel vehicle, capitalizing on the emission reductions attributable to ethanol. Even if those benefits were unambiguous, the logistics involved in delivering E-85 to every gas station in California alone are daunting. As to the low rolling-resistance tires used in their design, I wonder how well these would perform in the climate in which I live. "Rolling resistance" is another name for friction, which is largely responsible for keeping your car from skidding off the road. There's some optimal level of friction, especially when driving on snow and ice; a couple of brushes with black ice have given me religion on this. Perhaps UCS is relying on the electronic stability control that the government has just mandated for all 2011 models, but I'll need to see more global warming before I trade in my all-season tires on a low-friction set.

Looking to Europe, it's readily apparent from the cars that GM and Ford sell there that it is possible to produce attractive, safe and affordable vehicles that get much better gas mileage than the average cars sold here, even without resorting to the extra technology that UCS suggests. However, those aren't the cars most Americans want, even with gasoline again approaching $3.00/gallon nationally. Europe also provides some useful lessons on the limits of fuel economy. Despite much higher gasoline prices, along with taxes on engine displacement and other regulations favoring smaller cars, European manufacturers are struggling (2/2/07) to meet the 45 mile per gallon goal the EU has set for 2012. The carmakers that are closest to achieving this level, Fiat and Renault, sell cars that are least like those that Americans buy. The German auto firms facing the toughest challenge sell cars that are household names here. If there were an easy fix for getting big cars to 45 mpg, these folks already have an incentive to find it. Ultimately, something has to give: size, fuel economy, or price.

Somewhere between Mr. Lutz's concerns and UCS's claims there is a set of options and tradeoffs that will achieve meaningful improvements in fuel economy, even without hybridization or sleight-of-hand fuel switching. Detroit and the imports are going to have to learn how to do this, because stricter fuel economy standards are practically a given, with or without climate change, because of growing concerns about energy security and the impact of high energy prices. However, it's unrealistic to think that this can be done in a way that keeps both carmakers and US consumers whole. The former will see their costs rise, or the latter their range of choices shrink--or both. Telling us we can have it all, as the UCS seems to be doing, is a great way to leave the debate stuck where it's been for the last decade or more. Someone is going to have to sacrifice, and determining who and how much is precisely what we elect our leaders to do.

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