Industry, NRDC find common ground at SAE meeting

  • 08-Feb-2010 02:12 EST
Ecoboost - MCM size.jpg

This display is designed to highlight direct injection, one of the key technologies behind Ford's EcoBoost engine.

Andrew Brown Jr., Executive Director and Chief Technologist at Delphi Corp., said he couldn't have picked a better event for his coming-out party as the new President of SAE International than the plenary session at the SAE 2010 Government/Industry Meeting on Jan. 26 in Washington, D.C.

"We need to forge better relationships with Washington," he said.

And indeed, better relationships seemed the order of the day as two oft-enemies of the past, represented by speakers on the podium, took pains to demonstrate how differences over corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) and greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions were a thing of the past—mostly.

Dave McCurdy, President and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, and Roland Hwang, Transportation Program Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), all but finished each other's sentences on the need for carbon emissions reductions and higher fuel economy. In the past, the Alliance and the NRDC had been at each other's throats on those issues. But at the plenary session, both parties lauded as historic President Barack Obama's announcement last May in the White House Rose Garden that the U.S. would establish a national, combined GHG/CAFE program—thereby scuttling California's effort to impose a separate GHG standard on auto manufacturers in California. The Obama administration expects to announce a final GHG/CAFE program for the years 2012-2016 in March.

As about 200 people crammed into plenary sessions' three, no-longer-partitioned conference salons, McCurdy noted that the Alliance had endorsed the "dramatic, historic" Rose Garden announcement addressing standards from MY2012 through 2016, which he said, approvingly, was "only the beginning." He continued, "We are now talking about standards moving forward from 2017. That is far different than what we might have done in the past."

The single, national GHG/CAFE standard starts the U.S. on the road to an 80% reduction in GHG emissions by the year 2050, explained the NRDC's Hwang, whose presentation was titled: Enhancing the Competitiveness of the Auto Industry through Stronger Fuel Economy and CO2 Standard. "I agree with Mr. McCurdy," Hwang said. "The Rose Garden agreement was a historic accomplishment. It struck us with how much we have in common."

Hwang emphasized that auto manufacturers already have the technology to meet the 2012-2016 standards, saying that that technology was on display at the Washington Auto Show, which was taking place at the same time as the SAE meeting. He more than once singled out the 2011 Ford Explorer, which will get an EcoBoost engine and see a 25% improvement in fuel economy, according to an announcement Ford made the same day as the plenary session. "Turbocharged engines, seven-speed transmissions, unibody construction—those are the kinds of…advances you can see at this show, and they are the pathway forward to 2016," said Hwang.

McCurdy said the internal-combustion engines "would be around for a long time." He admitted that vehicle electrification faced considerable challenges in terms of vehicle affordability. There will have to be widespread adoption of electric vehicles before their costs come down, he explained, noting the chicken-and-egg dilemma resulting from the fact that amortizing the additional costs of electric vehicles can take 10-12 years, which is too long a payback for many consumers. He said auto manufacturers need incentives to either decrease the costs of EVs or increase their benefits—things such as HOV exceptions, insurance cost benefits, and tax credits. "It will be a bit of a challenge," he acknowledged.

Hwang went on to say that if the U.S. is to achieve that 80% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050, it needs a comprehensive approach. One aspect of that would be a 4% annual improvement in the years starting with 2017 over the 35.5 miles per gallon target (an average for all vehicles sold in the U.S.). Hwang implied that the 4% solution would give the auto industry the kind of long-term "certainty" on GHG/CAFE standards that McCurdy had made the bedrock of his presentation.

McCurdy, however, did not endorse the 4% annual increase proposed by Hwang, nor did he sound his support for Hwang's statement that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) would have to be part of the comprehensive solution he advocated. In the question-and-answer portion of the session, after Hwang called the VMT reduction issue "a very critical piece" and a "tough nut to crack," McCurdy said that the auto emissions challenge should not be left for automakers alone to overcome. The government could help by taking measures to alleviate traffic congestion, for example. "You can't put it all on vehicles," McCurdy emphasized.

Also making a presentation at the SAE event was Joseph N. Kanianthra, President of Active Safety Engineering LLC and a former Associate Administrator for Vehicle Safety Research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. His presentation was titled: Getting Back on Track for Future Safety. He started out explaining that he did not choose that title to offend anybody in the audience. "We may be on track," he joked, "but we may not be moving." He acknowledged the industry's numerous past safety innovations, such as advanced airbags, better head protection, and improved seatbelt force management. "But I don't want to be a cheerleader for past achievements," he emphasized.

He then hammered away at the fact that the numbers of fatalities per crash in the U.S. had stayed constant for decades despite declining in many developed countries, even though the U.S. seatbelt usage rate doubled between 1988 and 2008. Pressed in the question-and-answer period about that statistic, Kanianthra admitted that U.S. auto safety standards are in some respects superior to those in other developed countries. He cited alcohol consumption while driving as the big contributor to U.S. highway fatalities.

He also stressed his belief that airbags and seatbelts could be improved, and he pointed approvingly to Ford's announcement that the 2011 Explorer would have inflatable seat belts. He also wondered why the industry could not engineer airbags so they inflated in the direction in which a seat occupant was thrown, instead of inflating straight on 100% of the time. He suggested that safety improvements would come faster if they were dictated by the market, and he raised the idea of a rating systems for seatbelts and airbags.

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