The Obama Administration has once again demonstrated its commitment to progress on sustainability issues. On May 19th, the President announced dramatically improved auto fuel efficiency standards. In case you missed the announcement, according to the White House web site:
“President Obama today – for the first time in history – set in motion a new national policy aimed at both increasing fuel economy and reducing greenhouse gas pollution for all new cars and trucks sold in the United States. The new standards, covering model years 2012-2016, and ultimately requiring an average fuel economy standard of 35.5 mpg in 2016, are projected to save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the program with a fuel economy gain averaging more than 5 percent per year and a reduction of approximately 900 million metric tons in greenhouse gas emissions. This would surpass the CAFE law passed by Congress in 2007 required an average fuel economy of 35 mpg in 2020.”
There is a great deal of discussion about the causes and possible effects of this new policy. What is left of the American auto industry supports the new policy. As New York Times reporters John Broder and Micheline Maynard recently wrote, this is in part, “because they had no choice”. The auto industry has very little political clout in American politics. While for many years they had Michigan Congressman John Dingell protecting their interests, today they contend with California Congressman Henry Waxman- who is eager to make up for lost time in regulating auto emissions and gas mileage.
The other night, Jon Stewart did a short piece with a bunch of TV talking heads arguing about how dangerous small cars are and that these new auto standards will kill people. Other pundits argue that people will hold on to their old cars because they will be bigger and more comfortable than the new ones. I suppose these are the same people holding on to their SONY disc man or possibly their old eight track tape cartridges and still refuse to move on to an IPod.
While these new regulations can be seen as a threat to the American auto industry, there is a good chance that they represent the very opposite. They could be an opportunity to reengineer the auto industry for a new era. The new regulations will be “technology forcing”. They will require the auto industry to rethink the way they engineer cars and focus on delivering more energy efficient autos. In a time when concern about climate change and the volatile price of fossil fuels dominates our consciousness- a car that looks good, isn’t expensive, handles well and gets 100 miles to the gallon would dominate the world market instantly. A great new car could be just the thing to revive this declining industry.
Some people assume that we must trade off comfort, safety and style for fuel efficiency. I suppose these are the same people who once assumed that small computers couldn’t include much memory or computing power. Today’s laptops have more computing power than yesterday’s mainframes. In the urban and developed world we live in, the key to sustainability is rapid technological development. While the goal of 35.5 miles per gallon seems ambitious, it is actually reasonably modest. Twenty years from now, people will wonder why we were so tentative when we began to develop fuel efficient vehicles.
In the long run we are going to need electric cars and a power supply based on renewable sources of energy. Some day, the idea of “miles per gallon” will seem quaint. In the short run, the steps taken by the Obama Administration are essential. They demonstrate that we have discarded the bankrupt energy policies of the most recent Bush Presidency. The auto and oil industries no longer dominate this policy arena, and our nation’s credibility on the climate issue should be restored.
The crisis in the auto industry provides an opportunity to reshape and revitalize this critical part of our economy. For better or worse, this nation has developed its land in a way that requires personal transportation. While we can and should improve mass transit, we will always be dependent on the automobile. Under the President’s new plan California and the rest of the country will have a single auto mileage standard. I think that everyone is starting to understand that the future belongs to the fuel efficient.