A New Era for Automobile Efficiency?

By David L. Brown

The government today announced new fuel economy and pollution standards for automobiles and light trucks. This is excellent if somewhat tardy news, but should be viewed with some reservations. Let’s take a look.

First, I note that according to this report on FoxNews.com, a “senior administration official said the changes (when compared to current pollution and vehicle use totals) will have the effect of removing 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air, taking 177 million cars off the road, and shutting down 194 coal-fired power plants.”

This sounds too good to be true, and usually when that is the case one should prepare to apply some common logic. Some of these claims are hard to pin down, but the “177 million cars” figure is something we can work with.

According to the Department of Transportation, there are presently about 250 million cars and light trucks in service in the U.S. The 177 million figure mentioned by the administration spokesperson is equal to about 70 percent of the total number of vehicles presently on the road. Thus, to achieve the stated goal would require the outright elimination of 70 percent of all present CO² emissions from cars and trucks. A very optimistic claim indeed.

Let us assume that the new standards ultimately yield new vehicles that produce 50 percent less CO² than the average present cars. That seems pretty generous, but let’s go with that figure. Let’s say we trash 177 million present vehicles and replace them with new, cleaner vehicles yielding 50 percent less CO². Well, even that won’t achieve the stated target, since the new vehicles will still be producing half the emissions of the older cars they replaced. We will have only done away with the pollution equivalent of 88.5 million vehicles.

Now one might argue that the 177 million vehicle figure must be based on replacing the present fleet with completely clean electric vehicles If that were the case (and ignoring the greenhouse gas emissions from power production with the further assumption that it would come from clean solar or wind, which raises still more questions), we would still need to completely eliminate the emissions from 177 million passenger vehicles. (In fact, according to the news report, the targets “will be achieved with only minor modifications to vehicle and engine design,” so a complete switch to electric isn’t what they have in mind.)

It appears that to even come close to achieving the claimed target we would need to completely replace our present fleet—and unless the new vehicles were 100 percent “clean,” that still wouldn’t do the job. With 250 million vehicles emitting one-half the present levels of greenhouse gas, it would have only have replaced the equivalent of the output of 125 million present cars, not 177. This just doesn’t add up unless we make the further assumption that the actual total number of vehicles is significantly reduced. Only then does it start to make sense.

Herbert Hoover ran on the slogan “A car in every garage and a chicken in every pot.” Now it seems the plan is to empty out at least some of those garages. Will chickens be next to go? Well, that’s a subject for another day.

Today’s announcement seems to hint that these marvelous improvements will take place by 2016, or certainly in such a near future as to make a big difference in our present situation vis a vis energy use and pollution. In fact, the changes would be significantly longer-term. At recent rates of auto sales, it would take more than 20 years to replace the present fleet. Since the projections seem to be based on the assumption that everything would remain the same except with better fuel efficiency and lower emissions, we must ask what changes might occur in our nation’s economic, ecological and social future that would make these assumptions invalid. I will leave that to you to ponder, perhaps keeping in mind the failure of Soviet Five Year Plans to ever work out as hoped. Has anyone even tried to project an economic plan 20 or 25 years into the future?

Leaving CO² aside for now, it is interesting to look at the average range of automobile fuel efficiency over time. Here is a list of average fuel economy for all U.S. cars in selected years:

  • 1960 — 12.4 mpg.
  • 1970 — 10.0 mpg
  • 1980 — 13.3 mpg
  • 1990 — 16.4 mpg
  • 2000 — 16.9 mpg
  • 2004 — 17.1 mpg (latest available)

This is interesting in several ways. One thing that stands out is that during the 1960s, the age of the “muscle car,” fuel efficiency dropped substantially. Even in 1980, following the oil shocks of the 1970s, average fuel efficiency had barely exceeded the level of twenty years before.

During the 24 year period from 1980 to 2004, improvement of only 3.8 mpg was recorded. That dismal result was despite the establishment of CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards starting in 1975 and requiring auto makers to boost fuel economy.

The explanation for this poor showing is that the government turned its head the other way and let the auto industry slip through a loophole provided by an exemption for “light trucks,” originally meant to cover pickups and vans that were required to bear heavy loads.

Faced with this opportunity for duplicity, Detroit bean counters and lawyers put their heads together and invented the “Sport Utility Vehicle,” a new class of personal transport claimed by the makers to be light trucks, based on their supposed similarity to 4WD off-road vehicles. In fact, most SUVs are basically just family sedans with a different body style. Despite their appearance, most of them are not off-road rated. I remember reading about one such vehicle that attempted to negotiate the famous Rubicon Trail. After going over a few bumps and grinds, the doors could not be opened because the vehicle’s body had been twisted out of shape. Ooops! Despite having a Jeep-like appearance and in some cases even 4WD, the vast majority of all SUVs are never driven off of pavement—and for good reason.

Another factor to consider is that the industry standards are merely averages. A Hummer S2 gets about 9 mpg; a Toyota Prius gets 48 city/45 highway. There are a number of other models that get 35 mpg and more. That’s quite a range. What if drivers simply begin to buy more of the most efficient vehicles and fewer of the gas hogs? Wouldn’t that have the same effect as changing the CAFE standards? In fact, something like that has been happening. The Hummer dealership near where I live closed down about two years ago and the breed is practically extinct. Big iron from GM, Ford and Chrysler, not to mention Toyota and others, is languishing on car dealer’s lots nationwide. Much of that change in buying habits is a result of last year’s spike in gas prices, but with the present financial climate it seems likely that many consumers have learned to choose more economical vehicles (if they buy new ones at all).

President Obama announced today that the new standards would add $1300 to the average price of a new car that meets those standards. As paraphrased by Fox, he added that “drivers would make that back within three years due to savings on gas.” Well, that statement obviously refers to an average and one must keep in mind the old analogy about averages, that if you are standing with one foot in a bucket of ice water and the other in a bucket of boiling water, on average you are comfortable.

To further put these concepts into perspective, let’s use an example. I presently drive only about 3000 miles a year. If I were driving a Hummer S2 and getting 9 mpg, I would need to buy about 335 gallons of gas a year. If I were driving 40,000 miles a year as I did in years past, and were doing it in a Prius averaging 45 mpg, I would be buying nearly 900 gallons of fuel, nearly three times as much. Now the price of a Prius at well over $30,000 would make sense for my previous driving habits, but in my present situation it would make none at all. In fact, if I were to pick up a good used Hummer for about a third the cost of a new Prius (not beyond possibility these days), it would offer me a marvelous advantage between the two alternatives when all costs are considered.

In other words, for drivers who cover a lot of miles, there is an advantage to greater fuel efficiency. To those who use their car only to run to the store, not so much. And look at the fact that drivers already have a wide range of choices, as mentioned above. One who buys a Hummer, Expedition or other gas-guzzler must be aware of the fuel cost it will entail, and be prepared to pay for it. If an automaker continues to sell these large, inefficient vehicles but also sells, say six efficient cars such as are already available for each of the gas guzzlers, they could meet the new CAFE standards right now, tomorrow.

What could cause this to happen? Well, we only have to look back to last year to see the answer, which is: Higher gas prices. Raising the cost of fuel would further change buying habits, mucho pronto senor! Of course, the idea of increasing taxes to create a higher fuel price has been proposed—and rejected as politically unacceptable.

That’s too bad, because if gas prices could be maintained in a stable but higher range, say $4 or $5 a gallon, we would see a lot of the problems go away. The taxes could be tied to fluctuations in petroleum prices so that a stable pump price would be set, allowing drivers to make well-founded decisions not only on their choice of vehicles but their driving habits. We would see increased conservation through reduced driving miles; buyers switching to efficient vehicles: and new tax revenues that could be invested in something besides subsidizing the auto makers who helped get us into this mess—things like clean, renewable energy. An all-around win-win for our nation (but not for ExxonMobil and General Motors perhaps).

Helpful hint of the day: Don’t hold your breath.

This entry was posted in Age of Oil, Energy Technology, Fossil Fuels, Pollution, Transportation. Bookmark the permalink.