Fuel Efficiency: Survival of the Ambitious

With announcements of Ford’s first plug-in hybrid and expanded Prius hybrid lineup from Toyota, the Detroit Auto show demonstrates there is no shortage of clean car technologies.  The new year brings new products, expectations of a higher fuel prices and a new Congress that is hostile to pollution controls.

What will the new year bring for the US auto industry: gridlock or innovation?

On the bright side, the US Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation have the opportunity to set ambitious carbon pollution and fuel economy standards.  According to their preliminary analysis, 62 mpg is technically achievable in 15 years time.

As I’ve blogged before, the agencies analysis makes it clear that 62 mpg is the right choice: it saves drivers the most money, cuts our oil dependency the greatest amount, and is the level necessary to drive commercialization of advance technologies.

But unfortunately Detroit appears to be shying away from the challenge. Following a meeting with the Michigan congressional delegation, the Chairman and CEO of GM, Daniel Akerson, characterized the government’s goal of reaching a 62 mpg fuel efficiency average by 2025 as “pretty ambitious.”  He did not mean that as a compliment. Instead he said, “The laws of physics are not going to be suspended."

Mr. Akerson is right: 62 mpg is pretty ambitious. But America has always been an ambitious country.  We are a country of innovators, pioneers and leaders. Over the years, Americans have invented the airplane, the polio vaccine, the steamboat, the assembly line, the telephone, the transistor and supersonic flight, to name only a few.

Mr. Akerson is also right: the laws of physics are not going to be suspended. But as EPA and DOT engineers have shown 62 mpg does not require suspending the laws of physics.  Automakers have always responded by saying “it can’t be done” when it comes to new standards, including  seat belts, air bags, and catalytic converter.

Let’s be clear and honest here: 62 mpg is achievable. It can be done.

And let’s also not forget the laws of physics when it comes to burning oil. Each gallon of gasoline burned is responsible for 25 pounds of global warming pollution released into the atmosphere.  Two-thirds of every gallon of gasoline we burn comes from overseas: that’s hundreds of billions of dollars every year that could be invested in producing fuel efficient cars in the US.

America is and always has been an ambitious country. We have always thrived on new challenges, new frontiers. Bailing out the auto industry a third time is not an option. Setting ambitious, achievable fuel economy targets will ensure the US auto industry rises to the pollution and energy challenges of the 21st century.