Friday, August 6, 2021

Newly proposed auto standards hold promise

The Biden Administration is clearly making good on its pledge to revisit the automobile GHG emission standards weakened by the previous administration. The notice of proposed rulemaking issued by EPA on August 5, 2021 aims to cut model year 2026 car and light truck GHG emission rates 17% compared to the recent level, from 205 grams/mile (g/mi) in 2020 to a nominal target of 171 g/mi in 2026. 

The White House announcement just prior to the EPA proposal also states an ambitious goal for EVs to comprise half of U.S. vehicle sales in 2030. This non-binding target would include plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) as well as pure zero-emission vehicles such as battery electric and fuel cell cars. 

The new fleet average targets proposed by EPA are "nominal" because of the many flexibilities built into the regulations. These provisions include extra credit given for various electric vehicles (EVs), hybrid pickup trucks and the ability for automakers to carry forward credits they had earned in previous model years. The agency is also tweaking the off-cycle credits, which aim to improve real-world fuel economy by motivating automakers to make engineering changes that save fuel in ways that are not picked up on the test cycles used to evaluate vehicles for regulatory purposes.  

As has been the case for many recent model years, the actual GHG emission rates achieved by the fleet will be higher than the nominal target values. Nevertheless, the agency is proposing to sunset the extra EV and pickup truck credits after 2025 -- a good idea given the way such credits cause higher emissions from the bulk of the fleet that still runs only on gasoline. 

In terms of fuel economy, the actual 2026 fleet will be much less fuel-efficient on the road than it might seem from the 52 mpg value highlighted in the announcement. EPA's accompanying fact sheet notes that the 52 mpg target corresponds to a 38 mpg estimated "real world" value. However, even that number seems likely to be higher than what actually would be achieved. For perspective, the estimated value for the standard in 2020 is 32.2 mpg, while the actual 2020 new fleet average most recently projected in EPA's annual Automotive Trends report was 25.7 mpg, i.e., 20% lower (which implies emissions about 21% higher). 

The August 5, 2021, regulatory proposal is also notable because comes only from EPA. That's in contrast to the prior joint EPA-NHTSA rules that issued CAFE standards in coordination with GHG emission standards. Global warming is now a far more pressing problem than the energy security concerns that motivated CAFE standards over 45 years ago. Could it be that fuel economy standards are ready to be discarded? Having both CAFE and GHG standards entails duplicative federal agency efforts, creating two legally distinct regulations that motivate largely similar vehicle design changes. The executive branch, however, does not have the discretion to drop CAFE standards itself. That would require a change in law through Congressional action, something perhaps unwise to invite in these times of hyper-partisanship. 

All in all, the Biden Administration's proposal is definitely a great start in the effort to rebuild a robust national policy for cutting carbon from transportation, the nation's largest source of GHG emissions.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Fleetwide efficiency gains more important than electric cars over the next decade

For at least the next decade, the overall fuel economy of the entire car and light truck fleet will be more crucial for climate protection than the number of electric vehicles sold. That's the message of my recent online article in Scientific American: "Want Greener Cars? Focus on Fuel Efficiency." Read the discussion there (the article was first published in The Conversation under the title "To make the US auto fleet greener, increasing fuel efficiency matters more than selling electric vehicles").   

Friday, January 22, 2021

Personal trucks widen emissions gap over EVs

Excess carbon dioxide emissions from the rising popularity of light trucks, such as the Ram pickup, swamp many times over the potential carbon savings from increased sales of EVs, such as the Tesla Model 3, to date.  

Last fall, I posted an analysis showing that, even as electric vehicle sales had grown significantly over the past several years, the broader market shift to personal trucks (mainly SUVs and pickups) has overwhelmed the potential CO2 reductions from EV use by more than a factor of four. With the new EPA data now released, this ratio has increased to a factor of 5.6, as shown in the chart below. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

GM touts innovation while weakening regulation

My opinion piece published in The Detroit News points out the inconsistency of how some automakers have advocated for weaker fuel economy and GHG emission standards even as they promote their technology innovations. Taking General Motors' recent public statements as an example, it reminds readers that what ultimately matters for reducing emissions is the stringency of the regulations that apply across the entire vehicle fleet. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Light trucks overwhelm EVs' carbon-cutting benefits to date

Electric vehicle sales have grown rapidly over the past several years. In 2012, only about 53,000 EVs were sold in the United States, counting both battery electric and plug-in hybrid models. By 2018, the annual tally of new EVs sold in the United States reached 361,000. It then tapered to 327,000 in 2019, the last full year of data before the 2020 pandemic. The vast majority of EVs are Teslas, with the big jump in 2018 due to the introduction of the Tesla Model 3. With overall light vehicle sales on the order of 17 million per year (pre-pandemic), EVs comprised about 2% of the U.S. market as of 2019.

Although they increased over six fold in six years (2012-18), EV sales remain lower than was expected a decade ago when gasoline prices were still quite high after the marked oil price rise of the 2000s. But that was before new petroleum supplies came online, including domestic oil from fracking as well as expanding deep ocean oil production and other global supply-side advances. Once pump prices moderated and the economy recovered, the market began shifting back to SUVs and pickups. Most such light trucks are held to GHG emission standards less stringent than those for vehicles classified as passenger cars, such as sedans and small, front-wheel drive SUVs.

EPA's annual Automotive Trends report characterizes new vehicle CO2 emission rates, providing data that can be used to assess how market trends affect overall fleet average emissions. EVs can clearly cut emissions, but how does the potential CO2 decrease due to higher EV sales compare to the CO2 increase due to the shift back to light trucks?

Friday, July 17, 2020

A missing link in green car marketing

One of the reasons why automakers have advocated weaker fuel economy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards is that lower-than-expected fuel prices have lessened consumer interest in higher fuel economy. Although insufficient consumer interest relative to environmental need is the main reason why regulations are needed, lack of consumer interest is a legitimate concern. The challenge is quite real when the market is pulling one way while regulations are pulling another.

Nevertheless, environmental need -- and indeed policy-fostering public sentiment to address global warming -- does not go down when pump prices fall.

It is now well recognized that, to advance electric vehicles, extensive social marketing efforts are needed in addition to incentives, regulations and investments in charging infrastructure. But EVs are a slow slog in terms of market gains and, for cost and convenience reasons, likely to remain so for some time. For at least the next decade, EV promotion is poorly leveraged for reducing emissions at meaningful scales.

Significant emission reductions require fleet-wide gains in fuel economy. Climate concerns dictate that such gains be much greater than those to be seen under the near-flatlining of CAFE standards recently done at the industry's behest.

In spite of this need, no comparable social marketing effort is being directed to encourage consumers to choose more fuel-efficient vehicles whatever the market segment. This void is a missing link in the overall effort to reduce auto sector GHG emissions.

A large number of consumers do have environmental concerns, a fact borne out by numerous surveys in recent years. For example, the University of Michigan Energy Survey found that, since fuel prices fell several years ago, Americans are more concerned about the environmental impact of energy than they are about its cost. But little is being done to tap this sentiment when it comes to car shopping.

In a piece for Automotive News two years ago, I asked "Why aren't automakers connecting better with green-minded consumers?" That question is even more salient today.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Earth Day and auto efficiency

On Monday March 9, 2020, just before the coronavirus lockdown, I hosted a pre-Earth-Day teach-in on auto efficiency. It was part of the commererative week of action that the University of Michigan had planned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

Considering petroleum's grip on mobility

World petroleum consumption by region

Oil has sustained its energy dominance largely due to its convenience for supplying transportation fuels. Petroleum is largest source of CO2 emissions in the United States and second largest globally. Addressing this part of the climate problem means confronting both the market factors and market actors that determine petroleum supply and demand. 
My recent discussion paper examines this intersection of transportation, oil and climate. It traces recent trends affecting petroleum supply and demand, providing a perspective on the industry's interests and how the sector might be affected by potential demand disruptions due to policy changes and innovations in mobility systems. The pertinent aspects of energy policy reflect an ever-evolving political process that attempts to balance competing forces, including the oil industry's desire to maximize income and minimize costs, popular pressures to keep prices low, public sector needs for tax revenue and environmental concerns
These forces are now amplified by the pace of innovation. Impacts were seen first on the supply side through developments such as fracking. Next up are changes on the demand side, including new mobility options such as ridehailing, vehicle electrification and rising levels of vehicle automation. Although it is unclear whether such changes will be evolutionary or revolutionary, their net long-run effect is likely to be increased demand for mobility. Policies to address the climate concern seek to decouple transportation from oil, creating a petroleum demand destruction risk that the industry can be expected to resist.
Read the full analysis at:
DeCicco, J.M. 2019. Market Factors Related to Transportation, Oil and Climate. Discussion Paper. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Energy Institute. January.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Can the Trump administration pull off a clean car deal after all?

Regulations have long been a bone of contention between automakers and green groups, with policymakers caught in the middle. The disagreements have grown sharper than ever over the past two years, culminating in an August proposal from the Trump administration. That plan detailed a preferred option of freezing car and light truck Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standards after 2020.

In response -- and they were indeed prepared for this worst-case scenario -- the State of California and its allies have girded for legal battle. They filled the docket with comments and extensive supporting analysis designed to fight the administration's crippled standards in court. On the other side, automakers -- who had prompted the administration to revise the regulations -- hailed the Trump agencies regulatory reform process even though they said it weakened the rules even more than they wanted. At that juncture, it seemed like years of litigation might be inevitable.

Nevertheless, a look at the formal comments filed reveals the makings of a compromise peeking through the otherwise disparate views. Recent news stories report that serious negotiations between California and the Trump administration seem to be underway. My recent Axios piece muses about how a compromise on car standards could be in sight.