Report: Automakers will speed vehicle weight reductions
Washington — The National Academies of Science said in a report Thursday that automakers will trim more weight from vehicles than expected, and that U.S. regulators may have underestimated the costs of some fuel-saving technologies by as much as 15 percent.
U.S. fuel efficiency standards will nearly double between 2012 and 2025 to an expected fleetwide average of 54.5 mpg.
Automakers agreed to the dramatic hike in the requirements in 2011, but only after the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agreed to a “midterm review” to ensure that the final four years of the tightened standards are achievable.
The report from a National Academies committee of experts says automakers are likely to reduce the weight of vehicles more than the Obama administration has previously predicted -- “leading to both greater fuel economy benefits and greater costs than the agencies estimate. In addition, deploying turbocharged, downsized engines — which are expected to replace many current engines – may cost more and produce less fuel savings than” EPA and NHTSA forecast.
The report found that government estimates of electric vehicle battery costs are “broadly accurate, while the cost of the non-battery elements may be too low.” The report says automakers are likely to reduce vehicle weights of passenger cars by 10 to 20 percent — and 15 to 20 percent for light trucks — more than EPA and NHTSA predicted.
But the study found that automakers won’t need to sell electric vehicles to meet the rules by 2025.
The Obama administration estimated in 2012 that the regulations would cost the industry $200 billion to meet over a decade-plus, but said the fuel savings would far exceed the costs. Since then, oil prices have fallen sharply and automakers are worried that consumers won’t buy enough fuel-efficient vehicles to meet the requirements. But many see little choice than to assume the current numbers will remain in effect.
The report found the new standards are unlikely to lead to significant auto safety issues in part because the standards set a range of requirements based on the size or “footprint” of the vehicle.
“If a single target had instead been set for all vehicles, the agencies and others have argued, manufacturers might have tried to meet the standard by downsizing vehicles, which could have led to safety concerns. Basing standards upon vehicle footprint is a reasonable approach to a safety-neutral standard,” the report said,
However, the report said as vehicle weights are being reduced “there could be an increase in safety risk due to variation in the distribution of weight across the vehicle fleet. NHTSA should carefully consider and, if necessary, take steps it believes could mitigate the possible threats to safety during the transition period, as the fleet moves from current vehicle designs to lighter ones.”
Cars will have to average between 55.3 and 56.2 mpg by 2025, depending on their size, while light trucks will have to average between 39.3 and 40.3 mpg.
Christopher Grundler, the director of the EPA’s Transportation and Air Quality office, said earlier this year the agency has been preparing for the midterm review for 18 months.
In June 2016, EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will publish a technical assessment report along with California. Grundler said the report will not make any conclusions on the feasibility of the final rules. The agencies will then accept public comments and hold hearings.
Grundler said in a statement Thursday that the report is an “important contribution to the wide body of research that EPA and NHTSA will consider over the next several years.”
The final decision on the outcome of the midterm review must be made by April 2018 — almost certainly by President Barack Obama’s successor.
Cars and trucks account for over 80 percent of all personal trips, and nearly 90 percent of all passenger miles traveled by Americans. The vehicles consume about 130 billion gallons of gasoline a year — or 18 percent of the total U.S. energy consumption.
Mitch Bainwol, CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group representing Detroit’s Big Three automakers, Toyota, Volkswagen, Daimler and others, said “automakers will carefully review its projections and estimates to see how they square with the real-world challenges faced by engineers in our testing labs.
“Automakers are providing consumers with greater fuel economy, offering almost 500 models that achieve 30 MPG or higher on the highway. Although manufacturers can produce vehicles that achieve high mileage, consumers must be able to afford them and want to purchase them to raise fuel economy overall,” Bainwol said. “Consumer choice is complex, with many needs and desires at play, and low fuel prices are causing sales of the most fuel-efficient models to fall well below expectations.”
Julia Rege, director of environment and energy for Global Automakers, a trade association representing major foreign automakers, said “greater flexibilities will be necessary for the industry to meet the future standards.”
The report also said agencies should study how consumers value fuel economy. “There is a good deal of evidence that consumers appear to undervalue fuel economy; in other words, they do not appear to fully factor in how much money they will save on fuel when deciding how much to spend on a vehicle,” the report said.
It also called for a scientific study on real world fuel economy “since the performance of some new technologies, particularly hybrid powertrains and turbocharged, downsized engines, may deviate to a greater degree.”
Roland Hwang, a member of the panel and director of the energy and transportation program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the report “is a good, early indication that automakers can meet 2025 clean car standards on time, using known technologies, and at reasonable cost.” The report pegs the costs to comply in 2025 at between $1,181 and $1,689 per vehicle.