2011-2015 CAFE standards will reflect tough love

  • 01-May-2009 12:55 EDT

Chevrolet sold about 115,000 HHRs in 2008. The model will be considered a passenger car in 2011 for the first time.

Most automakers won’t sweat the CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standard for MY2011, which NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) published in late March. But they clearly are nervous about the standards for 2012-2015, which will reflect more clearly the Obama administration’s belief that automakers can make cleaner cars more quickly using advanced technologies.

The MY2011 standard dictates that domestic and foreign manufacturers collectively reach a fleet average of 30.2 mpg for passenger cars and 24.1 mpg for light trucks in model year 2011, or an overall average of 27.3 mpg. This is a reduction from what the Bush administration had proposed last May (31.2 mpg for passenger cars, 25.0 mpg for light trucks). Those targets really don’t mean much for individual manufacturers. They are useful mostly as a signal of NHTSA’s general expectation. When the 2011 model year is over, NHTSA will look at the number of autos and trucks sold in each “footprint”—or size—and come up with a company-specific CAFE number that each company should have met given its sales mix. That number, for passenger cars, will have to be at least 27.5 mpg or 92% of the CAFE of the industry-wide combined fleet of domestic and nondomestic passenger cars, whichever is higher. 

It is fair to say that the 2011 targets go pretty easy on manufacturers. John DeCicco, Senior Fellow, Auto Strategies, Environmental Defense, said U.S. Department of Transportation statistics for MY2008 show that the passenger-car fleet achieved an average of 31.4 mpg, higher than the 30.2 mpg target the industry will have to meet in 2011. “That represents a 4% decline from what average new-car fuel economy already is.” The 2008 numbers also show light trucks as having achieved 23.6 mpg, so the 24.1 mpg average for 2011 isn’t much of a stretch, either.

One Detroit company lobbyist says that the most significant aspect of the final rule is that it moves 1.4 million light trucks into the passenger-car category for 2011. These would be vehicles such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Chevrolet HHR. So theoretically, that makes it more difficult for General Motors and Chrysler to meet the 27.5 mpg/92% minimum. Still, neither company (nor Ford Motor Co.) is expected to have trouble meeting the 2011 standard.

In determining the fuel economy that it thinks domestic and foreign manufacturers can achieve within each “footprint,” NHTSA gave heavy weight to what technology it believes is now available, and what that technology costs. In doing so, the Bush administration, whose calculations were essentially adopted by the Obama administration, leaned heavily on a report in 2002 from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). But auto companies complained about NHTSA’s dependence on that dusty report, and in the wake of publication of the proposed rule the agency had to backtrack, acknowledging in the final rule that “in several cases, the agency concluded on the basis of analysis of that additional information that the costs in the proposed rule and draft environmental impact statement were underestimated and benefits overestimated, and in most cases, these estimates were not well differentiated by vehicle class. The agency also revised its phase-in schedule of the technologies to account more fully for needed lead time.”

In the final standard, the Bush NHTSA made some significant changes—for example, in its three technology decision trees (engine, electrification/transmission/hybridization, and vehicle technologies) based on comments it received from industry on its May 2008 proposed rule. The engine decision tree was expanded from 20 boxes in the proposed rule to 45 in the final rule to accurately represent all available application variants. Single overhead camshaft, dual overhead camshaft, and overhead valve engines now have separate paths that allow for unique path-dependent versions of certain engine technologies. The proposed rule only made the distinction between OHC and OHV engines. The separation of SOHC and DOHC engines allowed the model to more accurately apply unique path-dependent valvetrain technologies including variations of variable valve timing, variable valve lift, and cylinder deactivation that are tailored to either SOHC or DOHC engines.

Clearly, some of the technology assumptions, and the ultimate relaxation thereof, the Bush NHTSA used in developing the 2011 standard were made with a reeling Detroit in mind. The Obama administration’s mind-set is not likely to be nearly as sympathetic. That is why the new president ordered NHTSA, just a few days after he took office, to publish only MY2011 standards and delay the 2012-2015 standards readied by the Bush administration so the new powers that be at NHTSA could review the Bush approach, “including its methodologies, economic and technological inputs, and decision-making criteria to ensure that it will produce standards that contribute, to the maximum extent possible…to meeting the energy and environmental challenges and goals outlined by the president.”

In terms of its new technology evaluation, the Obama NHTSA will have the benefit of a new NAS technology assessment. Karen Aldana, a NHTSA spokeswoman, said there is no timetable for her agency’s release of a proposed rule on a 2012-2015 standard, which the agency is working on “vigorously.”

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