Automakers Can Build Better Cars, But We Need Strong Standards to Make Them

November 25, 2019 | 12:15 pm
Dave Cooke
Senior Vehicles Analyst

The Trump administration is looking to finalize its rollback of vehicle efficiency and emission standards by the end of the year. The exact level of the standard is expected to be somewhere between “complete and total abdication of responsibility” and “essentially worthless”—and no matter where it lands, it will not be based on the best-available data, nor will it be in the best interest of consumers or the environment.

We already have science-based standards on the books right now—but automakers have worked with the Trump administration to undermine those protections, whether that was pushing the administration to undo the regulations as soon as President Trump was sworn in or recent actions by a coalition of automakers led by Toyota, GM, and Fiat-Chrysler to rip authority away from the states precisely because they are doing their best to protect their citizens.

Fuel economy is slated to dramatically improve by 2025 in all classes of vehicle (solid lines), but most automobile manufacturers and the Trump administration have been working together to put the brakes on that progress (dotted lines indicate Trump proposal). Our analysis shows this progress can and must continue through 2025 (and beyond).

One of the biggest strategies automakers have used is to claim that the 2025 standards we have now are simply not possible. But our blog series analyzing how brands’ most important and popular vehicles could be improved in the next generation shows that this is nothing but puffery. After doing the analysis, here were my three biggest takeaways:

  1. Tech exists, but is frequently deployed elsewhere first

I try to keep up-to-date with the latest engine and transmission technologies, but one of the things that surprised me was how frequently the best available technology was only available in Europe or Asia, even from manufacturers with a large U.S. footprint.

One example of this are 48V mild hybrids—Volkswagen and Ford have both deployed vehicles with 48V stop-start systems in Europe yet offer none in the U.S., even though the technology is a cost-effective strategy to cut fuel use. In some cases, like the Chevy Malibu, a more efficient engine offering (in this case a 1.3L turbo) will be offered elsewhere in the world but not in the U.S.

Strong standards can help make sure that American consumers benefit from the latest and greatest technologies, and that the investment in developing and manufacturing those technologies happens right here in the United States.

  1. Lighter (and safer) materials can provide a big leap forward

Over the past 15 years, manufacturers have been deploying stiffer grades of steel, especially for safety applications. Just over five years ago, it looked like the industry was headed toward a massive increase in advanced lightweight materials—Ford invested heavily in an all-aluminum body for the #1 selling vehicle in the country (F-150), and BMW’s i3 put a carbon-fiber body on an aluminum frame to reduce weight.

Since then, however, the trend towards lighter weight materials has been more evolutionary than revolutionary—vehicles have reduced weight, but primarily with more advanced formulations of steel, as opposed to a wholesale shift in materials. Aluminum usage has been increasing, but at fairly modest levels of improvement, though that could change with even stiffer aluminum grades soon to be brought to market.

The increasing development of stiffer grades of ultra-high strength steel and underutilization of more advanced materials like aluminum means that automakers still have at their disposal a significant tool to reduce the energy needed to propel their vehicles. But as a recent report from the Center for Automotive Research noted, the Trump rollback “could temporarily reduce pressure to lightweight vehicles sold in the U.S.”

Cutting weight can help make vehicles safer and more fuel-efficient, in stark contrast to the nonsense that the administration has peddled about its rollback.

  1. More efficient vehicles pay off for consumers

To no one’s surprise, least of all my own, I was able to show that manufacturers complying with 2025 standards is a net benefit to consumers. Obviously more efficient vehicles will save consumers at the pump, but even after considering additional costs related to additional technologies, and assuming that manufacturers would pass all those costs on to consumers through higher vehicle prices, our analysis showed that consumers would save money.

On top of the net savings from meeting the 2025 standards, we found that many of our strategies for improving fuel economy resulted in improved performance (e.g. faster acceleration) as well, including improvements to the transmission and reduced weight. While this industry constraint for increased performance is independent of the regulations (and a cost that the industry chooses to bear), our modeling shows that industry’s claims that there is some incompatibility with increasing fuel economy while improving performance is just poppycock.

Pathways are numerous

Our analysis focused on meeting the 2025 standards with specific gasoline-powered vehicles in order to highlight more clearly that conventional combustion technologies already being deployed are all that is needed to meet the 2025 standards. But we know that these are not the only choices available to manufacturers.

Many different technology pathways exist for manufacturers to meet the 2025 standards—but all of them result in big reductions in global warming emissions and hundreds-to-thousands of dollars in net savings for consumers.

It may be that some automakers feel that preparing for an electric future is the smarter long-term play, instead of ensuring that the best off-the-shelf tech for their conventional gasoline-powered vehicles is deployed. However, this cannot be an excuse for slowing down progress, as companies like GM and Toyota are trying to do.

The choice is not about one or the other—responding to climate change necessitates a both/and approach. With the average vehicle sold now expected to be on the road for more than 15 years, we need these vehicles to get as efficient as possible, as quickly as possible, while preparing for a long-term phase out in gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles.

It is critical that automakers meet the 2025 standards we now have on the books—our modeling shows that they are achievable and good for consumers. So let’s quit with the nonsense from automaker lobbyists and lawyers that these standards aren’t achievable and focus on pushing the industry’s engineering experts to work on providing better, more-efficient vehicles for consumers.