Can fuel economy be increased using existing technologies?

Automakers have a major solution to soaring gas prices, worsening global warming, and the growing dependence on foreign oil: existing technologies.

Automakers have a major solution to soaring gas prices, worsening global warming, and the growing dependence on foreign oil: existing technologies, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Auto Safety.

The groups found that automakers could produce a fleet of cars and trucks that meet an average fuel economy of more than 40 miles per gallon by 2012, up from the current 24 mpg fleet average. This improved fuel efficiency would maintain the safety and performance consumers demand, while providing near-term economic and environmental benefits, and readying the way for even greater gains in the future.

With transportation consuming two-thirds of the nation’s oil, ‘Drilling in Detroit: Tapping Automaker Ingenuity to Build Safe and Efficient Automobiles’ recommends improving America’s fleet of cars and trucks to an average of 40 mpg by 2012, and 55 mpg by 2020, using available technologies.

‘Instead of drilling for new oil in public lands, we should tap Detroit’s ingenuity to produce cars and trucks that travel 40 miles on each gallon of gas,’ said David Friedman, the lead author of the report, and a Senior Analyst for UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program.’

Existing technologies could bring the typical family car to over 45 mpg and cut the cost of fuelling an SUV in half. Hybrid technologies could enable a family car to reach nearly 60 mpg and an SUV to break the 50 mpg mark. The report makes clear that technologies to meet these goals are available today. It details a technological path that applies conventional improvements-such as variable valve engines, high strength steel and aluminium, continuously variable transmissions and low rolling resistance tires-and develops advanced technologies, like hybrid and fuel cell vehicles.

Reducing fuel use would yield economic benefits, according to the report. By 2010, consumers could be saving $9.8 billion per year and $28 billion by 2020. The report predicts that a combination of more consumer dollars in the economy and investments in vehicle improvements could result in 40,000 new jobs in the auto industry within this decade and 100,000 new jobs by 2020. Along with these economic benefits comes environmental protection: 273 million tons of annual global warming emissions could be eliminated in 2010, 888 million tons in 2020.

‘Simply applying existing technologies would yield fuel cost savings of $3,000 to $5,000 over the lifetime of a car or truck,’ said Friedman. ‘The advanced technologies beginning to hit the road today promise even greater savings. Unlike diesel, these fuel economy gains do not compromise air quality and public health.’

Diesel is not a part of the report’s prescriptions due to the public health risks it poses. Reliance on diesel would guarantee increases in emissions of toxics, particulates, and nitrogen oxides. In contrast, the cleaner pathway prescribed in the report could reduce annual emissions from gasoline refining and distribution by 150 million pounds of toxics and 320 million pounds of smog-forming pollutants by 2010. By 2020, these reductions would reach 481 million pounds of toxic emissions and over a billion pounds of smog-forming pollutants.

Under the report’s high-efficiency scenario, the safety of America’s cars and truck fleet will be maintained, perhaps even improved. Safety experts found no direct relation between increased fuel economy and decreased fleet safety. In fact, for the largest vehicles, like trucks and SUVs, improving fuel economy through weight reductions could make them less dangerous to other vehicles on the road. In their analysis, the authors found that many improvements in safety – such as stronger roofs, improved seat belts, and crash avoidance systems -remain underutilized.

‘Fuel efficient cars and trucks can have the dual benefit of reducing both automotive fatalities and oil consumption,’ said Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety. ‘Design, not weight, is the key to building a safe vehicle.’

Unfortunately, manufacturers have a history of foot-dragging when it comes to introducing technologies that benefit consumer safety and the environment-from air bags to emissions controls to fuel economy. Recent overtures by some automakers are welcome, but fall short of the necessary fuel savings. In the absence of government action, auto designers will continue to deliver heavier vehicles rather than use technology to protect drivers, their pocketbooks, and the environment.

‘Fuel economy standards have not kept pace with technology improvements,’ said Michelle Robinson, Senior Policy Advisor for UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program. ‘It’s time for Congress and the president to raise CAFE standards. It’s good for Detroit and it’s good for America.’

The Center for Auto Safety was formed in 1970 to provide consumers a voice for auto safety and quality in Washington.