The US federal vehicle fuel economy programme should cut subsidies to dual-fuel vehicles

The US federal fuel economy programme needs reshaping to take into account issues such as vehicle weight and fuel prices, in order to cut the US’s petroleum dependence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a US Department of Transportation sponsored report, with one of the most surprising recommendations being to cut subsidies to dual-fuel cars – those that can use either ethanol or petrol.

Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards, published by the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council, has revealed that, despite being intended to encourage high efficiency vehicles, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards’ credits for dual-fuel vehicles have actually had a negative effect on overall fuel economy, because ethanol has only been used in 1% of the vehicles. The report states that measures have to be taken for the good of economics and the environment in the country where, currently, cars only have to achieve 27.5 miles per gallon, and light trucks a mere 20.7 miles per gallon.

“There are pros and cons to tightening fuel economy standards, involving a range of trade-offs,” said Paul Portney, Chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Making these trade-offs is a task that rightfully resides with elected officials. However, no matter what Congress decides regarding specific fuel economy targets, our committee is adamant that changes should be made to shore up deficiencies in the programme.”

The report includes a number of other suggestions, including:

  • the adoption of tradable fuel economy credits;
  • switching to attribute-based standards, such as matching fuel economy with vehicle weight, which would encourage manufacturers to reduce the size of their largest vehicles;
  • having the same standards for domestic and imported vehicles; and
  • encouraging research and development for fuel efficiency.

Currently, the issue of lowering the weight of vehicles in the US is a contentious one, due to the fear that lighter vehicles result in reduced safety for their passengers in road accidents. The downsizing of cars in the 1970s and 1980s may have contributed to an additional 1,300 to 2,600 fatalities in 1993, according to the report, but it points out that further research is needed.

The report also points out that there is a marked inconsistency between pressing automobile manufacturers for improved fuel economy on the one hand, and insisting on low gasoline prices on the other. Higher fuel prices would create a demand for more fuel-efficient vehicles and an incentive for owners to drive them less.

Nevertheless, in its current form, the fuel efficiency programme has had a positive impact on fuel consumption and the environment. According to the report, the scheme has resulted in a drop in gasoline consumption of 2.8 million barrels per day, translating to a 7% cut in carbon dioxide emissions.

A second report published this week by the National Research Council says that vehicle emissions test programmes have been less effective that expected, producing between none and half of the predicted emissions cuts. The anomaly has occurred due to issues such as an overestimation of compliance, and insufficient focus on the 10% of older, dirtier vehicles which produce 50% of the emissions.

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