Time for Washington to Lead
Deborah Gordon is a senior transportation policy analyst who has worked with the National Commission on Energy Policy, the Chinese government and many other organizations. Daniel Sperling is Professor of Engineering and Environmental Science and Founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. Gordon and Sperling are the authors of Two Billion Cars: Driving Towards Sustainability which provides a concise history of America’s Love affair with cars and an overview of the global oil and auto industries. In the original article below they look at what Washington needs to do to support sustainability.
Washington policymakers may have been backed into a costly corner on the Detroit bail out, but the real measure of their mettle is whether they can help us innovate our way out of this debacle. Automaking must undergo fundamental transformational change. The country needs a roadmap. That’s where Congress and the new Administration come in.
Over 20 years of government inaction does not instill confidence, however. Glorying in cheap oil, ignoring mounting imports, avoiding climate action, and preciously protecting U.S. automakers gave birth to Hummers while promising battery technology grew up overseas in Japan, Korea, and, increasingly, China. Few auto advances have been made. And now we’re poised to lose those gains as the venture capitial driven electric-vehicle companies that sprang up in recent years close shop.
One sure fix out of the utter mess we’re in would be to seriously raise gasoline taxes. This would change the entire oil equation, promoting sustained vehicle and fuel innovations the likes of which America has never seen. But with today’s economy bloodied and raw, this appears decidedly off the table, at least for now.
Instead, with current gasoline prices at all time lows, a minuscule 58 cents-a-gallon in 1980 dollars, the U.S. will remain hooked on oil. Priorities to accelerate the commercialization of clean advanced vehicles could be further derailed by Congress as it orders up the next fuel du jour. Corn ethanol, for example, a clear energy and climate fiasco, has long been the recipient of massive public subsidies amounting to about $10 billion in 2008. Federal commitments to clean vehicle and energy R&D, on the other hand, have dwindled to nearly nothing.
Over and over, the public interest has been swamped by regional and special interests and the private desires of consumers. This trend needs to be turned around: innovation needs to serve the public good.
California has figured out how to do this. And when it comes to cars, they have been pushing the envelope for half a century. It is now time for Washington to stop resisting a winning strategy and follow suit.
Adopting new clean vehicle performance standards is the key. The government must resist the temptation to pick winning technologies. Instead, we need innovative performance goals that let automakers and consumers decide which clean cars to commercialize. California’s 1960s pollution laws brought us the first automotive emission control, positive crankcase ventilation. Zero-emission vehicle regulations of the 1990s gave birth to the Prius. Just imagine what vehicle innovations new federal standards could summon.
The single most effective near-term action Washington can take to accelerate the development and adoption of next-generation clean vehicle technologies – electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and fuel cell vehicles – with no direct cost to consumers, is to create new performance standards for near-zero emission vehicles. Each company would be required to produce a set number of near-zero emission vehicles based on their market share, with more credit given to highly efficient vehicles with longer driving ranges that are mass marketed. Such regulations focus the minds of automakers and their suppliers. Small innovative start-up companies also get into the game. New supply chains for low-carbon cars would sprout up in America. Green jobs would be created.
It’s not too late for Washington, and Detroit, to follow the leaders and reimagine our automaking future. The European Union is already pursuing a near-zero emission vehicle category with less than 50 grams of carbon dioxide pollution for each kilometer traveled (equivalent to 113 mpg for gasoline).
So, while large gas taxes are still a sensible long-term solution, Washington must give automakers clear marching orders now. Our policymakers may be risk adverse when it comes to taxation, but Congress is an accomplished regulator.
The auto bail out, volatile oil prices, conflicts in the Middle East, increasing fears of climate change, and intense competition are creating the perfect storm for transformational auto innovation. Washington must take the reins and steer entrepreneurs, engineers, and the public down the path to reinvent vehicles.