The truth is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are drafting rules that grade manufacturers -- and the cars, trucks, and SUVs they build -- on a curve. This was mandated by the 2007 Energy Information and Security Act. The proposed 56 mpg standard by the year 2025 is not an inflexible line in the sand requiring all manufacturers to make only cars, trucks and SUVs go at least 56 miles on a gallon of gas.
Because automakers will be graded on a curve, there are incentives for manufacturers to build vehicles in every size class. The standards simply mandate that each of those vehicles, regardless of size, be as energy-efficient as possible.
If you hear automakers grumble that they cannot meet these fuel efficiency standards, don't believe them -- they are much better at innovation than they're letting on. It is important to understand how risk adverse automotive engineers have to be. Just misplacing the accelerator petal cost Toyota billions of dollars. Quality constraints are so severe that engineers are mired in a very conservative mindset that causes them to always underestimate what they can accomplish. Auto manufacturers not only have a plethora of new alternative fuel technologies to explore and develop, they also have plenty of on-the-shelf technologies they are in the process of deploying to make cars more fuel-efficient.
Stronger and lighter steel and simple design solutions are already available today -— and they save a lot of gas. It's the same story with technologies such as variable valve timing, cylinder deactivation, direct injected turbocharged engines, improved transmissions, and integrated starter systems. Manufacturers are already beginning to adopt these technologies. But they need to do it at a faster clip to help reduce fuel prices, our dependence on imported oil, and global warming gases.
Technology can move quickly or at a snail's pace, depending on the motivation of the industry involved. Several studies have shown that automakers could achieve the strong standard of 56 mpg that the Obama administration is reportedly considering even if they only use technologies already available today -— without any alternative fuel technologies coming on line at all.
But of course, it's silly to assume no innovation during the 14-year lead-time before cars have to meet the new mileage standards. Think of how long 14 years is in technological terms. Fourteen years ago, there were no BlackBerries, no iPhones, no Facebook, no Twitter.
On U.S. vehicles, there was no direct injection, no high-strength steel, no variable cam phasing, no 6- or 8-speed transmissions, no hybrid systems, no vehicle stability control, and lead-acid batteries were being used in battery-electric vehicles.
The last time gas mileage standards were tightened up, car makers -— after their initial protest -— got to work, and they are already well on their way to reaching the 35.5 mpg goal they agreed to last year.
If given an ambitious goal again in 2012 -- and 56 mpg by 2025 strikes me as ambitious, but doable —- we will probably be in for another round of hemming and hawing on the part of most carmakers. But at the end of the day, automakers will be able to get the job done. And families across the country will benefit.
John German is a senior fellow and program director for the International Council on Clean Transportation. He spent eight years at Chrysler working on fuel economy issues in powertrain engineering, thirteen years doing research and writing regulations at the Ann Arbor, Mich., EPA's Office of Mobile Sources' laboratory, and eleven years as manager of Environmental and Energy Analyses for American Honda Motor Company.