Thursday, April 28, 2011

US auto industry's fuel efficiency has stalled: it's time to restart the engine

Conflicted approaches to energy use - I want it, but I want it cheap - are rife and sit alongside a lack of joined up thinking.

Here's just one, small example, of a lack of integrated and strategic thinking at municipal level.
San Francisco prides itself on being a "green city". It adopted a plan in 2007 to commit the city to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% below 1990 levels by 2012.  Its recycling rate at 77%  diversion from landfill and zero emission trolley buses powered by clean electricity from the  Hetchy Hetchy dam are laudable. But claims of being a green city by world standards are far-fetched.

SF Park, which manages parking spaces in the city, has developed a fantastic new real-time data service for iPhones which will tell you where the free spaces are in the city. I spoke to the project manager at the recent Transportation Camp in San Francisco. He told me that the app scheme cost $20m of federal dollars from the Federal Highways Department. But parking will now cost from as little as 50c an hour off peak and will, as he admitted, encourage people to drive into the city centre if they can be sure of finding a parking space more easily.

He attempted to say that carbon emissions would be reduced because motorists wouldn't have to drive around the block several times looking for a free space. But it was a bit of a thin argument. I asked him if the trade-off would be fewer parking spaces to make way for better bike lanes or other "green" initiatives. He said no, that would be too difficult to mess with the roads "politically" even in a "green" city like San Francisco.

Meanwhile the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is in the red to the tune of $19.6m and has proposed cutting services in response… no doubt encouraging more commuters into cars because the transport system is too unreliable and allowing the existing "moving homeless shelters", as Muni buses are called by San Franciscans, to fill up with non- or low-fare payers. And with cute irony, it advertised its new service (see pic above) with a promo on those buses whose service it will choke.

And as other rail services, such as Caltrain, struggle with a $30m gap in their budget, the federal highways agency is handing out a further $20m to install highway filters along the 101 to even out rush hour traffic, so that commuters can get to the city 10 minutes faster.

If anyone can tell me why this $40m combined is money well spent, I would love to hear about it. But it makes no sense to me.

Of course, none of this would matter if the fastest rising emissions in the US weren't from transport. But the American auto-industry is stuck in a time warp and the market in the US has not been driven to innovate for fuel efficiency.

That will change. The Global Fuel Economy Initiative is pushing for global efficiency improvements. But in comments clearly targeting the Americans, it notes that :

  • Governments must create the conditions for industry to deliver the maximum from technological innovation, whilst fiscal instruments need to be coherent and consistent with targets;
  • Countries which have not done so should launch national fuel economy initiatives, whilst around the world binding fuel economy targets must be set. 

California's Air Resources Board along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration  are developing what is hoped will become a national fuel efficiency standard 2017-25. Recommendations for the so-called Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards will reach Obama's desk by the end of May. He will then decide on what the national standard should be in September.

A recent report from Citi Investment Research and Ceres indicated that automakers would in fact profit from new CAFE rules requiring automakers make passenger cars that did 42mpg  by 2020. But even that "ambitious" level would still be low by European standards, the report noted.

Again, it is only legislation that can stop the rise in traffic and drop the drain on fuel resources. In Europe, fuel taxation has spurred fuel efficiency since the 1970s. That isn't likely to happen in the US any time soon.

Designing technological innovations such as mass uptake in EVs or smartphone apps are over-engineered solutions - a bit like sending a nuclear physicist back in time to help Robert Stephenson develop the steam-powered locomotive. This is Rocket science, not rocket science.

Barack Obama's Sunshot initiative and Sputnik moment for clean energy seem pointlessly grandiose without more down to earth measures: make smaller cars, and make them more efficient.

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