President Barack Obama announced an energy efficiency plan on May 19 that would require cars and trucks to average 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. The plan would increase the standard and accelerate the requirement from 35 mpg in 2020 set by the 2007 Energy Act.
Concern over fuel efficiency standards in America has taken the spotlight in the media in recent years. With the U.S. consuming a quarter of the world’s oil and only 5 percent of the world’s population, the Obama administration felt it was time to take action.
The plan requires improvements in fuel economy for all cars and light trucks, based on their size. By 2016, cars would have to average 39 miles per gallon and trucks, 30 mpg.
“The status quo is no longer acceptable,” Obama said. “We have done little to increase fuel efficiency of America’s cars and trucks for decades.”
It also is expected to boost the average price of a new vehicle $600 on top of the $700 price boost already envisioned in the 2007 law, for a total of $1,300.
Not all cars will be more expensive because of the change, because many smaller cars already meet the requirements, said Dahlia Garas, program manager for the PHEV Research Center at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, in an e-mail. Major improvements will be necessary in larger vehicles, however.
“For the past 30 plus years, we have prioritized improving performance (max speed and rate of acceleration) and making and buying bigger vehicles,” Garas said. “We have maintained our fuel economy averages for that time, and put any efficiency improvements into improving performance rather than improving fuel economy.”
Now is the time to focus on improving fuel economy rather than performance, she said.
Obama agreed that “it costs money to build these vehicles.” But he also stressed that “the cost of driving these vehicles will go down as drivers save money at the pump.”
Over the life of the program, the U.S. would save an estimated 1.8 billion barrels of oil.
California has agreed to follow the new federal standards, instead of imposing its own, at least until 2016. California, plus 13 other states and the District of Columbia, previously asked for a waiver allowing them to impose stricter greenhouse gas standards than the federal ones.
To streamline the rulemaking process, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation, would work jointly, something almost unheard of.
“The President brought all stakeholders to the table and came up with a plan to help the auto industry, safeguard consumers, and protect human health and the environment for all Americans,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in an EPA press release. “A supposedly ‘unsolvable’ problem was solved by unprecedented partnerships. As a result, we will keep Americans healthier, cut tons of pollution from the air we breathe and make a lasting down payment on cutting our greenhouse gas emissions.”
Department of Transportation officials agreed with the EPA. “President Obama is uniting federal and state governments, the auto industry, labor unions and the environmental community behind a program that will provide for the biggest leap in history to make automobiles more fuel efficient,” said Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in the EPA press release. “This program lessens our dependence on oil and is good for America and the planet.”
Garas, the UC Davis researcher, said there are other ways to reduce oil consumption in the U.S. as well.
“Ideally, we would have a lot more affordable public transportation, so that we could reduce the number of miles driven in personal vehicles,” Garas said. “We would also improve the availability of alternative fuel sources, such as natural gas, hydrogen, electricity charging and biofuels, so that we could increase the rate of adoption of these alternative fuel vehicles.”
Garas also revealed new technology that would help improve gas mileage in automobiles.
“We can start with improved aerodynamics and reduced weight (while maintaining safety),” Garas said. “We could improve engine efficiency, through both new techniques, and existing technologies, such as turbocharging. We can hybridize (even cheap, mild hybrids can improve fuel economy by 10-25 percent), start manufacturing plug-in hybrid vehicles, which would allow people to drive on electric power (stored in batteries, charged from the grid) for short distances and only use the engine and gasoline for longer trips … I personally don’t think biofuels are ready to displace very much of our gasoline use right now, but hopefully scientific breakthroughs will lead us to that point soon.”
Garas pointed to long term goals such as using electric vehicles or hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles that can be fueled from more renewable energy sources.
ANGELA SWARTZ can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.