On Monday morning, President Barack Obama signed executive orders that could speed the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions from automobiles by improving fuel economy and setting stricter emissions standards. While the technology exists to reach the stricter standards, it’s not clear that automakers can implement them fast enough. What’s more, additional policy measures may be needed to reduce overall fuel consumption.
Obama signed two orders on Monday. One required the Department of Transportation (DOT) to enforce a law that will increase fuel-economy standards to a minimum of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The law was passed in 2007, but detailed rules telling automakers how to comply were never implemented by the Bush administration. The second order signed by the president calls for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revisit a request from the state government of California asking for permission to implement emissions standards that are more strict than federal rules. Those standards call for decreasing carbon-dioxide emissions from new vehicles by 30 percent by 2016; more than a dozen other states have since followed California’s example. Under President Bush, that request was denied, but experts say it’s likely that the EPA will now approve it.
The orders are meant to reduce both carbon emissions and gasoline consumption, Obama said on Monday. They will help on the country’s “journey toward energy independence” and will “spark the innovation needed to ensure that our auto industry keeps pace with competitors around the world,” he added.
The technology does exist to make it possible, and much of it is simple. For example, low-rolling resistance tires can help make cars more efficient by reducing the amount of energy lost through waste heat. Reducing the weight of vehicles by using lightweight steels and aluminum can also boost fuel efficiency. And automakers can use smaller engines to improve efficiency, making up for lost power by turbo-charging them. Greater improvements can come from advanced technologies such as plug-in hybrids, which run electricity part of the time. But there may not be enough time “to get the technology out there in the volumes needed,” says John Heywood, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.
The California standard’s 2016 deadline is “just around the corner,” adds David Greene, an energy policy analyst at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee. He believes the soonest that automakers could make changes based on the new rules would be 2011, and it may be five years beyond that before the companies can modify their entire fleet of vehicles. It will take time to ramp up production of new technologies, in part because of the need for new equipment from other manufacturers, and in part because there aren’t enough engineers to redesign a whole fleet faster than that, Greene says. What’s more, the automakers don’t have abundant resources right now to invest in the necessary changes: many are facing bankruptcy because of very bad sales.
“This will be hard for the manufacturers,” says James Sweeney, a senior fellow of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research at Stanford University. “It would have been much better for them to have made the changes five years ago, rather than now. But they fought the changes tooth and nail.” The rules may have to be adjusted in light of the recession, he says.