Ever since emissions and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations appeared on the books they've always been aimed at improving new cars. The automotive industry spends tens of billions of dollars every year on developing everything from fuel cells to carbon fiber in a mad scramble to meet those regulations. But we won't see the full benefit of those investments for a couple of decades because it takes so long to turn the fleet over.
We don't need another "Clunkers" program. Instead, we need an approach that can improve the existing fleet.
Worse, we know that the oldest 20 percent of vehicles on the road account for 80 percent of the emissions. That was one of the arguments used in the "Cash for Clunkers" program in 2009 to justify paying people to scrap their older cars. But we don't need another "Clunkers" program. Instead, we need an approach that can improve the existing fleet, not just the shiny new cars rolling off the assembly line right now.
The fastest way to do this would be coaching drivers on how to drive more efficiently. With some simple pointers, most drivers could improve their fuel efficiency by 10 percent to 20 percent. We're not going to turn everyone into a hyper-miler, but a few tricks of the trade could save everybody around 50 to 60 gallons of gasoline a year. Multiply that by 258 million vehicles and the savings are massive.
And I'm not talking about driving slow. Good drivers can drive decently fast at the same time they get good fuel economy. We've seen many a race get won by drivers who knew how to "make fuel." It mostly has to do with keeping an eye on the road ahead, maintaining momentum, and knowing when to back off and how long to coast. With a manual transmission, you can also short shift.
But depending on drivers alone is not enough. We need to use our road infrastructure more efficiently. A study from the US Department of Transportation shows that by simply timing traffic lights properly we could reduce fuel consumption by 5 million gallons a day. In the grand scheme of things that's only a drop in the bucket, but in this case every drop adds up.
In this case, every drop adds up.
Connected car technology could make this all the easier. It could display the proper speed you need to drive to get only green lights. Best of all, much of this technology can be retrofitted to older cars using smart phones.
Reducing the amount of stop-and-go traffic could have a dramatic impact. A lot of research has gone into this. While the results can be mixed, one study from the University of California, Riverside, found that traffic congestion increases fuel consumption 80 percent, both from stop-and-go driving and from vehicles spending more time on the road. Eighty percent is a lot!
Once again, it's the navigation systems found on most phones that can help mitigate stop and go traffic. They can direct you away from traffic jams and construction sites. And, of course, they can be used in older cars and trucks. Ideally we would also invest in some simple infrastructure improvements. "Intelligent semaphores" would change from green to red to benefit whichever lanes are carrying the heaviest traffic. More roundabouts would process more traffic and do it more efficiently.
There are fiscal benefits from this approach. These would largely be one-time investments, instead of today's approach of trying to make 17 million vehicles more efficient every year. The cost to society would be far less and the results would come far faster by improving the existing fleet instead of improving each individual new car.
There's a real disconnect between what the regulators want and what the public is buying.
To meet today's CAFE rules, automakers have to sell hybrids, plug-ins, battery electrics, and even fuel cell cars. And yet, car buyers the world over are largely shunning these powertrains. They account for less than 3 percent of sales. There's a real disconnect between what the regulators want and what the public is buying.
That disconnect is likely to grow. The CAFE standards really ramp up after 2017 and that's going to send car prices up sharply. Most car buyers will be motivated to hold onto their existing cars longer, meaning it will take even longer to turn the fleet over.
Next year automakers and regulators will sit down to review CAFE to determine if those rules need to be modified. I think a change is needed. The current strategy is not working to plan. Doubling down on that strategy is not going to change buyer behavior. Why not come up with an approach that will cost a lot less money and produce results a whole lot sooner?
John McElroy is host of the TV program Autoline This Week and an automotive industry expert. He also hosts the web series Autoline Daily and Autoline After Hours.