Thomas Friedman wrote a New York Times column entitled This is a Big Deal in early December, 2011 forgiving President Obama for his leadership failures. Friedman said that Obama has been a disappointment on energy and the environment and has been “completely missing in action on the climate debate.” But Friedman said he is overlooking this record based on a recent agreement negotiated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) with General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, BMW and six other major car companies. The agreement will go into effect in 2017. It requires annual mileage improvements of 5% for cars, and a little less for light trucks and SUV’s. 5% per year (compounded) based on the current 27.5 MPG gives the 54.5 MPG in 2025, which are the government MPG goals quoted by Freidman. The EPA and DOT estimate that the new innovations necessary to achieve this goal will gradually add about $2,000 to the cost of an average vehicle in 2025 and will save more than $6,000 in gasoline purchases over the life of that car.
Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign of the Center for Auto Safety, is quoted in the column as saying that the mileage deal “is the biggest single step that any nation has taken to cut global warming pollution.” Becker cautions that, like any Washington agreement, it contains loopholes that give the auto companies opportunities to behave irresponsibly if they so choose.
In my opinion, automakers cannot achieve a sustained 5% increase in MPG every year. According to the 2011 Transportation Energy Data Book, British Thermal Units (BTUs) consumed per vehicle mile for automobiles and light trucks over many decades decreased less than 1.5% per year. Looking at it in MPG terms, Miles Per Gallon has increased 1-2% over several decades. In 2007, John German, at the time Manager of Environmental and Energy Analyses for Honda, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources noting that from 1987 to 2006 technologies that could have improved fuel economy have gone into the fleet at a rate of about 1.5% per year. German also pointed out that the potential MPG improvements were sacrificed for other attributes such as more weight and faster acceleration. The Toyota Prius, the most fuel efficient car in the U.S., improved its fuel economy by about 1.5% per year over the last 12 years. The International Energy Agency’s 2011 World Energy Outlook projects a MPG improvement for passenger vehicles from 8 liters/100km to 5 liters/100 km by 2035, about a 2% annual improvement.
Five percent per year sounds impressive but there was no discussion as to how it would be achieved. This bold statement from the government reminds me of comments made by candidate Obama in 2008 when he committed to backing a 150 mpg PHEV. This campaign pledge was put into law in 2009 and included rebates of $7,500 per vehicle for the first million pluggable hybrid cars. The Chevrolet Volt was the “poster child” for this program. It did not reach the advertised 150 MPG, achieving about one fourth of that number – 38 MPG. (See my white paper on this site “The Plug-In Scam –GM and EPA Misrepresentation of the PHEV”. Optimistic MPG projections may garner public excitement but making it happen is not up to the president but rather the automakers. Obama asked for 150 MPG and GM delivered 38 MPG.
Suppose reality prevails and the actual accomplishment is much less, say 2% per year. That would put off the 54.5 MPG to some point well after 2025. In the past, the government made claims for automobile MPG improvements that were never achieved. This may prove to be the case here as well. And it’s not exactly clear what the 54.5 MPG means. In a report on hybridcars.com describing recent CAFE hearings, Jeff Cobb noted that the 54.5 MPG standard when measured for the conventional window sticker is about 40 MPG.  That’s a more realistic improvement of about 3% per year, but still higher than historical improvements.
Today a consumer can buy a Prius that gets 50 MPG. Toyota has extended the Prius architecture to larger (Prius v) and smaller (Prius c) versions. In 2012 Toyota will ship the Prius c, a smaller version of the current Prius, which gets 53 MPG for city driving, close to the 2025 54.5 MPG government target. Waiting for 2025 to drive a low energy high MPG car is not necessary. This new EPA/DOT program could well be too little too late.
 This Is a Big Deal by Thomas Friedman, New York Times, December 3, 2011
 CAFE Hearings Focus Opposing Viewpoints by Jeff Cobb, January 19, 2010 http://www.hybridcars.com/news/cafe-hearings-focus-opposing-viewpoints-35534.html
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