The Obama Administration Should Unleash American Ingenuity to Dramatically Raise Car and Truck Efficiency and Cut Carbon Pollution

Today, NRDC and 18 other environmental and science organizations sent a letter urging President Obama to set strong fuel efficiency and global warming pollution standards for new cars and trucks. Strong, forward-looking performance standards send clear signals to auto and truck engineers to apply their ingenuity to build cleaner, more efficient vehicles sorely needed in a world of dangerous oil dependence and intensifying global warming. The Obama Administration should seize this opportunity to lower consumer fuel costs, improve our security and cool the planet.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) are preparing to release proposals for improved vehicle standards this fall that will cover (a) cars and light trucks for model years (MY) 2017 to 2025 and (b) medium and heavy-duty trucks, which include long-haul tractor trailers, city buses, delivery vehicles and work trucks, for MY 2014 to 2017. (See Roland Hwang’s blog for a more detailed description of the process and the history of vehicle standards.)

To capture the full benefits of cost-effective vehicle technologies, the agencies should ramp up new car and light truck Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to at least 60 miles per gallon (mpg) and limit pollution to no more than 143 grams of carbon dioxide per mile by 2025. EPA and DOT should also set standards that cut fuel consumption and global warming pollution by 35 percent from long-haul tractor-trailer trucks and the maximum feasible reductions for other trucks.

The benefits of these strong standards are huge. By 2030, the U.S. could save 49 billion gallons of oil annually and cut dangerous global warming pollution by 535 million metric tons. According to a Consumer Federation of America report, 60 mpg car and light truck standards are also good for consumers because the value of cleaner, more efficient vehicles will quickly payback the incremental costs of better technology. For long-haul and other truckers, the same holds true.

Getting to 60 mpg

Multiple recent studies demonstrate that we can reach at least 60 mpg. A recent report from the University of Michigan found that using cost-effective technologies the fleet of new cars and light trucks could average 74 miles per gallon, and that’s without considering plug-in electric vehicles. Analyses by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology[1],[2] demonstrate the potential for advanced internal combustion engine vehicles to reduce fuel consumption by 40 percent and conventional (e.g. non-pluggable) hybrids by 55 percent from today’s average vehicles. Technologies to achieve these improvements are known and include turbocharged gasoline engines, diesel engines, advanced transmissions, aerodynamic improvements, high-strength lightweight materials, and fuel-efficient tires. Broad application of these technologies could result in petroleum-only vehicles that average 55 mpg in the middle of the next decade.

Adding a moderate level of electrified vehicles to the mix can achieve a fleetwide average of 60 mpg. And plug-in vehicles are already on the way to showrooms. The release of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf this year is expected to be followed by over 45 new plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle models by 2015 according to a forecast by automotive analyst Alan Baum. An automaker could produce a 60 mpg fleet in 2025 with 30 percent advanced internal combustion engine vehicles, 55 percent hybrids, 10 percent plug-in hybrids and 5 percent pure electric vehicles. That fleet would also average 143 gCO2e/mi when including the use of more climate-friendly air conditioning systems and the emissions of power plants for grid electricity generation.

Cutting Fuel Consumption and Pollution from Medium and Heavy Trucks

It is important to address the fuel use by medium and heavy trucks because they burn a lot of oil and emit a lot of global warming pollution. Medium and heavy trucks, which include long-haul tractor trailers, city buses, delivery vehicles and work trucks, consume 20 percent of the oil used in the transportation sector and emit about 20 percent of transportation sector global warming pollution yet trucks represent only 4 percent of the vehicles on the roads.

The technology exists to cut fuel use and emissions significantly by 2017. According to a recent technology assessment by the National Academies of Science, fuel consumption and global warming pollution from new long-haul rigs pulling van trailers can be reduced by at least 35 percent by 2017. If we also set standards to cut the consumption and pollution of other trucks by just 20 percent, we will save 5.6 billion gallons of oil and avoid emissions of 70 million metric tons of CO2 in 2030 from just the 2014-2017 rule.[3]

Importantly, the fuel and pollution savings are dependent on regulating the whole vehicle. Specifically, EPA and DOT standards should include requirements on trailers in the same time frame as their regulations on tractors and engines. Trailer efficiency can be improved dramatically through cost-effective aerodynamic adjustments and fuel-efficient tires. The Administration should take advantage of this low-hanging fruit for saving oil and cutting pollution.

Overall, the Administration has a tremendous opportunity with these upcoming standards to cut fuel consumption and pollution from cars and trucks. Improved efficiency is good for car owners and truckers because it helps relieve the pain at the pump. Better truck efficiency also benefits consumers by helping to reduce the cost of shipped goods. Strong vehicle performance standards are critical for improving our energy security and our environment. Now is the time to set standards that will unleash American ingenuity to build the clean cars and trucks of the future. 

[1] Bandivadekar, A., et al. 2008. On the Road in 2035. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

[2] Kasseris, E. and Heywood, J. 2007. Comparative Analysis of Automotive Powertrain Choices for the Next 25 Years. Society of Automotive Engineers. SAE Technical Paper 2007-01-1605.

[3] To provide some context, between now and 2030, medium and heavy-duty truck consumption is forecasted to grow by 37 percent. If we set strong standards in this initial round, we can cut that growth nearly in half. It’s a good start but the U.S. will need to continue to improve standards beyond MY 2017 meet long-term oil dependence and global warming pollution goals.

About the Authors

Luke Tonachel

Director, Clean Vehicles and Fuels Project, Energy & Transportation program

Join Us