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Automakers, EPA underestimate the speed of innovation

John German

Technology innovation is moving at lightening speed. From advances in solar cells and energy storage to giant leaps forward in quantum computing and rocketry. So why, as we watch the maturation of advanced technology unfold in real time, would the capacity to create breakthroughs be downplayed for the auto industry? This is our question for car makers and their governing agencies.

The nation’s current light-duty fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards, which cover model years 2017 to 2025, were originally based on technology assessments done back in 2012. Recognizing that technology and its costs change rapidly, the Environmental Protection Agency published a reevaluation of miles-per-gallon standards covering model years 2022 to 2025 in 2016. After countless hours of research, forecasting and stakeholder engagement, the EPA completed its rigorous — yet conservative — midterm evaluation, and found the existing standards to be achievable and cost-effective.

However, the incoming Trump administration was not satisfied and called for a do-over. When the reopened midterm evaluation process concludes its new technology assessment this spring, the administration will decide whether to stay the course with the current standards or to weaken them. What will it mean for this decision if they continue to downplay the pace of innovation?

Our organization, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), performs its own independent technology assessments on a regular basis. Working with automotive suppliers on a series of technology papers, we have found huge improvements in the cost of many fuel-economy technologies since 2012, when the current standards were put in place. The efficiency gains from those innovations are helping automakers meet the existing mileage and emissions targets faster, and more affordably, than most experts thought possible. The automotive industry continues to play technology leapfrog at an astounding rate, illustrated by three recent technology announcements that already go beyond the latest technology assessments by EPA and ICCT.

The 2018 Toyota Camry redesign improves fuel economy by more than 20 percent, thanks to a highly efficient engine and some modest weight reduction. That’s without relying on hybridization or even a stop/start system. Even the base 2018 Camry already meets its 2022 fuel economy target, achieving improvements primarily through engine and transmission changes. Toyota can reach its 2024 fuel economy target just by maximizing air conditioning efficiency and other off-cycle credits and can easily meet its 2025 target with other modest technology improvements.

Meanwhile, Mazda just announced a step change in gasoline engine efficiency: homogeneous charge compression ignition, which Mazda achieved with a breakthrough in the control of ignition timing. Mazda claims this propriety process will deliver unprecedented engine response, increase torque 10-30 percent and equal or exceed the efficiency of its latest diesel engine.

At the same time Volvo has decided that electrification is the future, and is making 48-volt hybrid systems standard on every new vehicle redesign starting in 2019. These “mild hybrids” systems can deliver more than 60 percent of the benefits of full hybrids — like those in the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape — at only 30 to 40 percent of the cost.

Mazda and Volvo — as a brand — do not command large shares of the market. But both have already figured out a viable pathway towards meeting the 2025 standards. Each is taking a unique route to achieve this goal. This proves that the target can be reached via more than one strategy. So, if these smaller manufacturers can meet established mileage and emissions standards with their limited R&D budgets, that leaves little excuse for larger automakers with deeper pockets.

All of the efficient technologies described here can be applied to any vehicle, including sport utility vehicles, crossovers and pickup trucks. With new technologies maturing at an impressive rate, it’s clear that the current 2025 standards can be achieved. And success will cost a lot less than anybody had forecast.

Those who still support rolling back mileage and emissions standards tend to rely on a study commissioned by the U.S. Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry lobbying group. The study is not an engineering assessment of future technology and it fails to consider the kind of technological advancements outlined above. The failure to incorporate the rapid technological advances mentioned above — and many more — is a fatal flaw leading to conclusions that would only be accurate in a world where technological innovation is limited and slow.

The EPA has closed the public comment period for its midterm review redo. ICCT’s forecasts show that the cost for advanced technologies that improve gas mileage and decrease emissions is dropping at a pace far faster than the government or automakers have ever acknowledged. If the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were to rely on the latest technology developments and forecasts, they would see only two options: keep the current standards or make them even stronger.

John German is an engineer and senior fellow at the International Council on Clean Transportation.