Approaches to Cutting Automobile Emissions

Consumers have benefitted from low crude oil prices for more than a year, but even if gasoline prices remain low, the quest to cut emissions will drive the cost of automobile transportation upwards.   Driverless cars will price in the equivalent of a sophisticated robot.  The main impetus for fuel economy is the reduction in greenhouse gas in automotive emissions.

There are many strategies being deployed to improve fuel efficiency.  Conventionally fueled cars will be reengineered with materials that shed weight yet retain safety.  Carpooling will work in some contexts, but irregular schedules and the erratic proximity of suitable riders will limit success.  Gasoline engines will become far more sophisticated in the quest to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT).  Every 5 years, EPA and DOT set forth aggressive increases in fuel efficiency standards.  By 2025, passenger car fleets are required to average 55.8 miles per gallon (mpg).  Adding in light trucks, the fleet average is expected to be 54.5 mpg. That’s double today’s expectation.

The 54 mpg standard is misleading.  It is what regulators expect from a controlled test at steady speed on a level, straight track.  Steadiness and moderate speed helps with economy. We would experience that when we set a modern cruise control at a moderate speed such as 55 mph and travel across a desert plain.  In reality the 54 mpg is expected to translate into about 36 mpg for the combined city/rural average fuel economy sticker on a new car.  Further adjustments can help meet the CAFE standard such as a small car footprint, direct injection, turbocharging, electric drivetrain, 2-passenger seating, and three-cylinder or hybrid engines.

Some fleets are ahead of fuel economy expectations (e.g. Tesla and Toyota) and some are behind.  Recent fuel economy misreporting by Suzuki, Mitsubishi and Hyundai reveals we made less progress on fuel efficiency than we expected.  Volkswagen’s shocking sneakiness in reporting emissions gives the industry a black eye, but none of these bouts of untruth are likely to lower the CAFE standards already adopted – misbehavior just makes it harder to meet the goals.

The US pursues a campaign of setting ever-higher efficiency standards for gasoline and diesel vehicles, but some countries have chosen a more radical way to hit low emission results.  The Netherlands proposes that the “sale of all diesel and petrol cars could be banned by 2025.” Older Dutch cars could remain in service.  Also by 2025, Norway has adopted a target of zero emission from new automobiles.  There is some semantic haggling on whether that means a ban on new gasoline and diesel cars, but the direction is clear.

In a move less radical, but probably with strong results, Paris banned pre-1997 automobiles from its streets during weekdays.  Paris has suffered substantial smog in recent years and pre-1997 vehicles were fingered as the culprits because they conform to only the weakest of European emission standards.  The ban will be migrated forward — by 2020, cars built before 2011 will be banned.

The emission control approaches from Norway, Holland and Paris effectively require purchasing a new vehicle sooner, while the US approach will result in gradual price increases for gas and diesel cars.  If adopted in the US, the Norwegian and Dutch approach would leave vast areas without new vehicles suited to long distance travel – since there is insufficient electric car recharging infrastructure.   If applied to US cities, the Parisian approach coupled with the ongoing CAFE standards should bring a rapid decrease in US automobile emissions.

Whatever the policymakers do, we hope that they start being more mindful of the cost to consumers.