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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Greening Cars

Air Date: Week of

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California car manufacturers will have to start retooling their models to meet the state’s vehicle emissions standards by 2016. Host Steve Curwood talks with two researchers who are looking at this debate from opposite sides. Louise Bedsworth represents the Union of Concerned Scientists, and says there are cheap ways to cut tailpipe emissions by as much as 40 percent, while Tom Austin, consultant to the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, says outfitting cars with more efficient technology is ultimately up to the consumer.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

California has made new rules that require passenger vehicles to reduce their emissions of global warming gases, such as carbon dioxide and air conditioning chemicals, by some 30 percent over the next 12 years. Now, assuming the measures survive expected court challenges, it means that carmakers will be compelled to redesign SUVs like the Ford Explorer and other popular light trucks and cars. All this will cost consumers a lot of money, the carmakers contend, but some environmental activists aren’t so sure.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has calculated that modifications that cut global warming gas emissions by as much as 40 percent will be offset by savings at the pump. Joining me now are two consulting engineers with diverse views on this debate. Louise Bedsworth is a vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, in Berkeley, California. Louise, hello.


CURWOOD: And also joining me is Tom Austin. He’s a senior partner for Sierra Research, a consulting group for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Sacramento, California. Tom, hello.

AUSTIN: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, Louise, the Union of Concerned Scientists has a model SUV that you guys have created, I guess, really on the computer rather than reality, and you compare this to the Ford Explorer. What are the elements that you think a Ford Explorer could reduce its emissions by 40 percent?

BEDSWORTH: Well, there we’re talking about making more engine changes and going from the type of engine that we have today, where air and fuel are injected into a chamber and mixed prior to entering the cylinder, to a direct injection engine. We further streamline the vehicle and we also add low-rolling, we use low-rolling resistance tires on the vehicle. We also do the six-speed transmission; but, in this case, you do a transmission without a torque converter.

We’ve looked at making changes to the vehicle’s air conditioning system, as well. In the long term, what we’ve looked at doing is using a refrigerant in our air conditioning system that has a much lower global warming potential. So, in the case of our current refrigerant, we have a global warming potential of 1,300; looking in the longer term we could be using a refrigerant that still has a fairly high global warming potential but is more on the order of 120. So it’s 120 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

CURWOOD: Explain for me please, how you can save fuel with tires?

BEDSWORTH: Well, tires…when you move along the road, your tire has to overcome friction with the road. It also loses heat by the flexing of the side walls of your tire; it doesn’t stay completely rigid. So tire companies have really been working hard to improve the materials of their tire to cut down on the losess both of the flexing of the side walls which causes that heat loss which is essentially loss of energy, and then cut down on the friction between the tire and the road.

And this has nothing to do with how well your tire grips the road. It just has to do with how it’s moving along the road. And so, for instance, Michelin has made a commitment to halve the rolling resistance of most of their tires by 2020. So we’re seeing great strides from tire companies in making these types of improvements in their tires.

CURWOOD: And when you talk about streamlining the vehicle, car companies spend an awful lot of money on the design on that shape of that vehicle. It would cost them a lot of money, I would think, to make changes. What are you proposing that wouldn’t cost that much money?

BEDSWORTH: Well, when you redesign a vehicle you’re making changes to the body. For instance, when the Toyota Prius was redesigned from its first generation that was available here in the United States to the one that’s currently available, the 2004, they reduced their drag coefficient by over ten percent, just in a redesign of the vehicle. And that’s just in making it smoother, moving through the air more easily.

We’ve also seen great strides in SUVs. Things like the Acura MDX, the Volvo XC90, the Lexus RX330. These all are vehicles with very low drag coefficients. Making smarter decisions that will improve your aerodynamics in the design process is not going to cost a lot of money.

CURWOOD: Okay. So at the end of the day your vehicle that would reduce the prototypical Ford Explorer’s emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, by 40 percent, would cost car companies how much?

BEDSWORTH: We’ve looked at retail price increase, so we’re looking at the cost to the consumer, and we come up with a cost of just under $2,000 for that type of a change. But I think it’s important to point out that these are some of the most cost-effective emission reductions we can make. Many of these changes on the vehicle will actually result in less fuel usage.

And so we’re seeing that these technology changes – while you’re paying more when you purchase your vehicle – will pay for themselves over the life of the vehicle. For instance, the Ford Explorer, if the price increased by just under $2,000, you would make up that in reduced operating costs in just about three years.

CURWOOD: All right, Tom Austin, let me turn to you now. You’ve looked at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ prototypical vehicle claiming to have this 40 percent reduction. How much do you think it would cost automobile manufacturers to make these changes?

AUSTIN: Just about twice what Louise estimates. When we look at the technology that would actually be required to achieve a 40 percent reduction, we think the retail price is probably going to be about 4,000 dollars higher. And that’s because we have some fairly substantial differences in our estimates of how much it would cost, for example, to do an all new transmission. The cost estimate that is in Louise estimates for this all new transmission is essentially zero. And when you take a look at trying to do this in time to comply with these new standards that have just been adopted in California, there would have to be a lot of retooling. And we’re going to be talking about several hundred dollars cost to do a modified transmission.

I agree that the streamlining costs would be low. The problem there, manufacturers have known how to streamline vehicles for a long time, but they also know what sells. And there’s a limit to where we can go with reducing the aerodynamic drag coefficient of vehicles. Vehicles with boxier styling are selling better these days, and that’s resulted in an increase in the aerodynamic drag coefficient of several models in recent years that are selling quite well.

CURWOOD: Now, the automobile industry has to think about making some changes in order to meet the regulation that the California Air Resources Board is promulgating in the next 12 years. So, which of the suggestions that Louise is making here might the industry feel comfortable responding to?

AUSTIN: Well, how the industry is going to respond is really unclear at this point. To a certain extent these new standards for carbon dioxide emissions, or greenhouse gas emissions, in California, I think, are a replay of the electric vehicle mandate that was adopted in 1990. GM had developed the most advanced electric vehicle ever produced, then called the Impact, later called the EV1, and the Air Resources Board passed a regulation essentially forcing ten percent of all production to be electric vehicles by 2003. But when the reality of what the costs would be sunk in, the mandate had to be watered down.

I think the same thing is going to happen with this mandate they’ve just passed for radically improving fuel economy. When the reality of the costs sinks in, I just can’t see that this mandate is ever going to stand – assuming it passes a court challenge.

BEDSWORTH: Steve, I would just like to add, you know, I think there’s a stark difference between this regulation and the electric vehicle mandate. Which is, the electrical vehicle mandate for zero-emission vehicles was really dependent on making some technological breakthroughs in battery technology, and getting those vehicles on the road. Those did not materialize. These regulations are based on technologies that are all currently available.

Even when you look at some of the advance technologies we’re already starting to see them in the marketplace. And so I think, you know, we’ve seen a pattern of this overestimation of cost and underestimation of potential from the industry. And I think there is a real difference with this regulation – these technologies are available, they’re in use. And what the Air Resources Board is really asking for is for these technologies to be put on vehicles.

CURWOOD: Let’s explore the middle ground. Tom Austin, what do you think, what kinds of collaborations do you think could be struck with the environmental and regulatory communities on this question of greenhouse gases in cars?

AUSTIN: Well, I think the real concern here is balkanization of fuel economy standards. While it’s true there’s a law in California that says the Air Resources Board is supposed to set standards, it’s also true that there’s a federal preemption for states adopting standards that are related to fuel economy. My view is that the standard that’s been adopted here in California is preempted, and I think we’re going to end up seeing a court step in and set it aside. There’s no question there’s going to continue to be development of fuel economy technology. There’s going to be higher fuel economy vehicles in the future. But I don’t think we’re going to end up seeing state by state terminations as to exactly what the level of fuel economy should be.

CURWOOD: So, until the courts tell you you have to, you ain’t gonna.

AUSTIN: Well, if the courts end up deciding that the California reg can stand, then obviously there’s going to be compliance. But it’s not going to be compliance based on the assumptions that Louise is talking about and that the Air Resources Board is talking about. There are going to be radical changes in the kind of vehicles that are made available for sale in California and the public is not going to like it.

CURWOOD: Can you explain more?

AUSTIN: Well, when you take a look at what is the most cost effective way to respond to this regulation if it stays in place, there are going to have to be certain very popular models of vehicles that are withheld from the market. It is not going to be feasible for manufacturers to invest many thousands of dollars in meeting these standards with aggressive hybrid technology when they know full well that the public is not going to be willing to pay the price. As a result, we’re going to have some significant changes in the kind of cars that are available in California and the public’s not going to stand for it. And, if for no other reason, that’s why the regulation will eventually fall.

CURWOOD: All right, we’re just about out of time here. But fast-forward again: the year 2016. Somehow this question has been resolved between regulator and regulations and cars. Could each of you describe the typical, or the replacement SUV that you think would be on the road? Louise, I’ll talk with you first.

BEDSWORTH: Well, I think, hopefully, we’ll see a mixture of vehicles. I think we’ll see vehicles such as the one we’ve discussed today, with improved engine and transmission and other vehicle features. We have an improved conventional technology vehicle. I think we’re also going to see a large number of hybrid electric SUVs available, we’re seeing them come out on the market now – by 2016 there should be even more. And by 2016 we should be seeing some fuel cell vehicles, as well. So, hopefully, there will be a diverse mix of solutions out there in 2016.

CURWOOD: Tom Austin?

AUSTIN: Well, I think that by 2016, if this regulation stays in place, we will see some new technologies on vehicles. There’ll be more sonar deactivation. There’ll be more variable valve lift in timing. But there’ll be fewer large heavy vehicles.

I would disagree about fuel cell vehicles. I don’t think there is any chance that by 2016 we’re gonna have any fuel cell vehicles in mass production. The cost of hydrogen is far beyond what you often read. It’s likely to be in the cost of the vehicles themselves has not yet been brought anywhere close to what’s going to be commercially feasible.

CURWOOD: Louise Bedsworth is a vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkley, California. Tom Austin is senior partner for Sierra Research, a consulting group for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Sacramento, California. Thank you both for speaking with me today.

AUSTIN: Good talking to you.

BEDSWORTH: Thank you.

[MUSIC: Clint Mansell pr2 p MUSIC FOR THE MOTION PICTURE (Thrive – 1998)]

CURWOOD: Coming up: the morning, after for many environmental advocates who gambled on the Democrats and lost. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Albert King “Drowning on Dry Land” YEARS GONE BY (Stax – 1983)]



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