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. 

In 1970, awareness of the need to far better protect the environment was growing, triggered by the many forms of out-of-control pollution afflicting communities across the country and across the world. Automobile pollution was one big part of huge environmental problems overall. At the time, the focus was on smog-causing tailpipe emissions, which were especially bad in Los Angeles while worsening all around the country and indeed throughout the world. 

In response to the growing public pressure, Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970. That landmark law was signed by President Richard Nixon and established the first truly stringent nationwide motor vehicle emission control regulations. Those standards fully took effect in 1975 and were tight enough to require the use of catalytic converters on nearly all new cars. Successive rounds of regulation led to the far cleaner vehicles we have on the road today. 

Today's challenge is global warming, caused by excess emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Transportation is the largest source of U.S. CO2 emissions, and automobiles -- including ever-popular pickups and SUVs as well as cars and minivans -- are the largest part of the sector. Improving auto efficiency is therefore as crucial now as cleaning up conventional tailpipe pollution was a generation ago. 

This event discussed the current challenges for auto efficiency improvement. It reviewed where things stand in terms of autos and CO2, describing the progress on fuel economy and GHG emission standards made under the Obama Administration, the Trump Administration's effort to weaken the regulations and why most automakers wanted weaker standards, as well as public understanding of the issue. The teach-in featured retired EPA executive Chet France, Brett Smith of the Center for Automotive Research and notable environmental journalist Julie Halpert along with myself.