Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New Standards for Vehicles

On Tuesday, the Obama administration set higher mileage and emission standards to take effect in 2012 and to be achieved by 2016.  The new rules would bring new cars and trucks sold in the United States to an average of 35.5 miles per gallon, about 10 mpg more than today's standards. According to news reports, passenger cars will be required to get 39 mpg and light trucks 30 mpg.

A draconian mandate of this sort always carries more consequences than are first apparent.  The mileage stipulated requires cars and light trucks can only be achieved through the use of lighter materials for engines and bodies.  The physics of moving four adults means vehicles can only be compressed so far.  Lighter materials for engines and bodies will increase fuel efficiency but eventually those limits will be reached.  Options to further increase fuel efficiency become few to non-existent at that point.

Rather than set some arbitrary number for MPG, a better approach would be to reduce the need for the number of automobiles on the road.  Los Angeles has some of the worst traffic congestion in part because it has the fewest options for mass public transit.  I heard a report this morning by a business reporter that the US should follow the European model that does not mandate MPG (and where fuel costs $6.00 per gallon).  The reporter's supposition is that the cost of fuel controls the fuel efficiency of European vehicles.  The reporter seems to overlook the vastly superior mass transit systems of Europe compared to the United States that eliminates much of the need for travel by private conveyance.

The Obama administration’s new fuel mandates forces the use of more plastics in automobiles, a material made from petroleum.  This seems to contradict the stated reasons for increasing fuel efficiency, to reduce dependency on foreign oil.  The use of more plastics and lighter bodies does not reduce the need for light trucks to be able to haul loads.  Load requirements mean engines will still have to produce enough horsepower to haul loads, reducing load capacities means more trips or more trucks to haul the equivalent load.  The effect is zero or even negative fuel savings as well as increased pollution.

Fuel additives were the latest attempt to reduce dependency on foreign oil but the results so far have been unimpressive.  The ethanol industry is failing to produce a profit despite government requirements to use the additive.  The increase use of ethanol had the unintended consequence of increase food costs associated with increase in corn prices.  Corn was identified as the preferred material to manufacture ethanol even though only a relatively small amount of the corn cob produces ethanol.  The rest is waste.  Comparatively, willow bushes can be converted into ethanol using almost 100 percent of the plant.  Willow would not have had the same increase on food prices.  Ethanol production yields more air pollution than it saves as a fuel additive.

Ethanol also increases maintenance costs as it leaves heavy carbon build-up in engines and deteriorates fuel lines when concentration exceeds 15%.  The additional costs means any fuel savings are offset by the additional wear and tear on vehicles.

Reducing American dependency on foreign oil is vital to homeland security but this needs to be achieved by something other than federal mandates for fuel efficiencies.  Our mass transit systems need to be drastically improved.  Having viable rail systems between major cities reduces both the need for private vehicles as well as air travel.  Air travel is often looked at separate from the passenger cars yet they are both related.  Both airlines are passenger cars are used as there are no other alternatives available to most travelers.  A major improvement to our mass transit system would help reduce energy dependency, air pollution, and even would lead to economic recovery.  None of these will be achieved through federal mandates for increased fuel efficiency.

No comments: