Under Biden Administration, a New Decade Has Dawned—Passenger Car Regulations Must Keep Up

January 19, 2021 | 2:19 pm
Veronika Nedelcu/Unsplash
Dave Cooke
Senior Vehicles Analyst

With a new administration taking office and a new decade upon us, it’s a perfect opportunity to recommit to holding the automobile industry accountable under the Clean Air Act. While 50 years of regulation have brought with it substantial benefits, four years of automotive rollbacks has taken its toll, with stagnating fuel economy and numerous pollution scandals plaguing the industry.

While manufacturers continue to be in compliance with fuel economy and emissions regulations, improvements are stalling, and a continued shift away from cars to SUVs and light trucks shows the country progressing far too slowly to avert the worst impacts of climate change. With a new presidential administration set to take over, it’s time to put the previous administration’s rollback in the rear-view and the pedal to the metal, pushing industry onto a more sustainable path.

The Good

EPA’s latest data does lays out some good news—many classes of vehicle are at record high fuel economy levels, and the industry continues to comply with the Obama-era emissions standards. This is not surprising—it has happened year after year after year, even as industry swore repeatedly that the standards were just too hard. And it makes for more efficient offerings in a range of vehicle types.

EPA’s latest report on fuel economy and emissions showed a slight tick down in fleetwide fuel economy, even as many types of new vehicles are more efficient than ever.

Importantly, EPA’s latest also shows that there is a lot more improvement available using technology that is already on the market. Manufacturers are nowhere near exhausting improvements from internal combustion engines, and they’ve barely scratched the surface deploying electric vehicles, since one brand (Tesla) sells more electric vehicles than the entire rest of the industry combined and what few EV models exist aren’t even available everywhere.

The Bad

One unfortunate side effect of the regulations, however, is that the same flexibility that encourages improvements in every type of vehicle has led to fuel economy slipping backwards to 2017 levels of just 24.9 mpg. This is the result of escalating sales of SUVs and pick-up trucks that are outpacing efficiency improvements to those vehicles.

This bad news is compounded by an auto industry that spent the past four years working to rollback fuel economy and emissions standards. And while some of those companies eventually decided certainty was more important than blowing things up entirely, those companies represent just thirty percent of vehicles sold in the United States, and they still haven’t convinced anyone else to follow.

Manufacturers continue to holding onto a large bank of credits, which they have been gradually using over time to slow efficiency improvements at precisely the time we need to be accelerating emissions reductions and addressing climate change.

Even as automakers’ press shops try to generate buzz about their big grandiose visions, it’s clear that the industry is not doing enough to plan for a cleaner future. Flashy investments in electrification are matched by equally big investments in trucks and SUVs, and few manufacturers are planning to offer U.S. customers mass-market EVs any time soon. Production plans show virtually no near-term strategy for transitioning to EVs, as the industry churns out its most truck-heavy line-up yet.

The auto industry has spent six decades fighting regulations at every turn, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to stop any time soon, even as they’ve proven that they aren’t interested in addressing climate change unless forced.

The Ugly

Sadly, the years of delay have accelerated climate change. In 1988, the year James Hansen famously testified to Congress about the dangers of global warming, the U.S. Congress passed the Alternative Motor Fuels Act, which acknowledged “the release of carbon dioxide … may be producing a long term and substantial increase in the average temperature on Earth, a phenomenon known as global warming through the greenhouse effect,” encouraged the use of alternative fuels, and required a study examining the potential for electric vehicles. More than three decades later, the most notable climate legacy of the bill is sadly the auto industry’s exploitation of its “flex-fuel vehicle loophole,” which has resulted in 600 million metric tons HIGHER emissions thanks to its unwarranted overcrediting of fuel economy.

This has left the United States (and the world writ large) well behind where we need to be to avert the worst impacts of climate change. With ongoing climate impacts like record wildfire seasons, increasing hurricane intensity, and worsened seasonal and coastal flooding, the need to act is more dire than ever.

Achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 is necessary to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. Analyses like this from the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network illustrate both that challenge and the need for rapid electrification of passenger vehicles.

This is especially true when it comes to transportation, which is the largest source of emissions in the United States. The average passenger vehicle is on the road for more than 15 years, and analysis shows that electric vehicle sales should be approaching 100 percent in 15-20 years in order to achieve our climate goals.

Moreover, the auto industry has not given much reason to suggest itself willing to address pollution or act in good faith. On the heels of an emissions scandal involving faulty controls on 2.2 million of its vehicles 20 years ago, Toyota agreed to more stringent oversight by EPA…and was just found to have promptly ignored the agreement, failing to report numerous environmental issues with its cars. Automakers continue to fight against increasing fines for non-compliance with fuel economy regulations, despite numerous, clear legal arguments that such increases are required. And the aftermarket parts industry continues to fight for the right to sell “defeat devices” to consumers despite evidence showing that more than 10 percent of all diesel pick-up trucks have been tampered with, a pollution scandal worse than TEN TIMES that of Volkswagen’s “dieselgate,” itself yet another environmental disaster at the hands of the auto industry.

The Opportunity

The urgency of the moment gives a new administration the perfect opportunity to act. After four years of moving backwards, strong executive action at the federal level can build upon the groundwork laid by state leadership over the past decade to put us back on a more sustainable trajectory.

Investment in the transition should be at the forefront of President-elect Biden’s plans, including in charging infrastructure and manufacturing incentives. The Departments of Transportation and Energy should be doing what they can to promote the deployment of charging infrastructure in public, workplace, and multi-unit dwelling locations,  particularly those with bad air quality. Such infrastructure deployment will ensure EVs are more accessible to lower- and middle-income households and encourage a rapid and more equitable transition to a sustainable transportation system.

But without a binding, strong standard, these types of incentives do little to ensure manufacturers keep up with what is needed. Coming in with a strong vision about what is necessary, and directing executive branch agencies to put regulations in place that respond to the scope of the challenge are the only thing that provide the certainty of action on climate (absent federal climate legislation). That takes substantial leadership—time and time again industry has undersold what is possible, and we can no longer afford such lax regulation.