States Push Automakers on Fuel Efficiency

Ten states are taking steps that would gradually force automakers to produce vehicles with higher fuel efficiency and lower emissions of greenhouse gases. California is leading the effort and would also require cars and trucks to emit less carbon dioxide.

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Not for the first time, Americans are debating just how far cars and trucks should be able to travel on a gallon of gas. Efforts to achieve dramatic increases in gas mileage have been stymied over the years and now states that want tighter regulations are trying a new tactic. Ten states are moving on their own to clamp on down on vehicle emissions of greenhouse gases. If their effort succeeds, automakers would have to make vehicles much cleaner and more fuel-efficient in the future. NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

California started it. Then came Vermont, Connecticut, and New York. Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are expected to join the list as early as this week, followed by New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington state. Together, these states make up a third of the US auto market. Steve Hinchman, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation in Maine, says this would force automakers to develop cleaner versions of most cars.

Mr. STEVE HINCHMAN (Conversation Law Foundation): And as consumers realize, they have a choice to buy a clean car that's 20 to 50 percent more efficient, we're going to hit a tipping point where it will no longer make economic sense for Detroit to continue making the dirty version of the car. We will shift over to the new technologies where we can have cleaner cars sold nationwide.

SCHALCH: The plan grew out of the Clean Air Act and an exception carved out for California. California's allowed to have stricter rules curbing pollution from autos than the federal government does, and other states can choose between the federal standard and California's.

Mr. HINCHMAN: We've chosen the stricter California program because it's the only policy option available to us that we can use to reduce pollution emissions from the transportation sector, which is the most polluting and fastest-growing problem in terms of air quality in the Northeast.

SCHALCH: Last year, California regulators added carbon dioxide to the list of pollutants they want to control, though other states can do the same. The new rules would be phased in slowly, but by 2016, automakers would have to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by up to 30 percent.

The auto industry is fighting back in court. Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, says carbon dioxide can't be regulated like a pollutant because it's not toxic to animals or people and it's tough to control.

Mr. ERON SHOSTECK (Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers): Carbon dioxide is a direct byproduct of a vehicle's fuel combustion. There is no way to capture carbon dioxide emissions at the tailpipe. There's no convertor or trap. There's no device you can bolt onto a vehicle to capture carbon dioxide emissions. The only way to control carbon dioxide emissions is to make a car combust less fuel.

SCHALCH: Meaning vehicles would have to get better gas mileage. And Shosteck says therein lies the problem.

Mr. SHOSTECK: The federal government has sole authority to set national fuel economy standards. This is to ensure that we have a consistent fuel economy program in all 50 states, that we don't have a state-by-state patchwork quilt of fuel economy programs because that would just drive up the cost of vehicles and would perhaps make certain vehicles unavailable in certain states, which is unfair to consumers.

SCHALCH: Automakers say the regulation would add $3,000 to the cost of new cars and trucks. They say that could end up worsening pollution because people who can't afford new vehicles will drive their older, dirtier ones longer. State officials say the industry is exaggerating. New York state estimates the carbon dioxide restrictions will add $1,000 to the price of a vehicle. Environmentalists insist that consumers would come out ahead because they'd save so much on gas. And they say hybrid engines are just one of many available technologies that would help meet the more stringent standard.

David Friedman, a clean vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, demonstrates something called variable cylinder management. It allows this new Honda minivan to shut down cylinders that aren't needed. He lets up on the gas and a little light comes on.

Mr. DAVID FRIEDMAN (Union of Concerned Scientists): There it is, right above the tachometer, a nice green eco-light that tells me I'm getting better fuel economy because I'm only operating on half the cylinders. You could get close to a 15 percent reduction in global warming pollution just from this technology.

SCHALCH: Next, Friedman demonstrates continuously variable transmission in a new Nissan Murano.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: Instead of having four or five gears, like most cars, this has a device that effectively has an infinite number of gears.

SCHALCH: Optimizing engine speed and allowing this vehicle to travel between five and 15 miles farther on a gallon of gas.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: It's not rocket science. This is just auto mechanics. This is technology that all the car companies have. It's just about putting it to work across the fleet.

SCHALCH: But it's not clear the new state standards will survive. David Sedgwick is editor of Automotive News.

Mr. DAVID SEDGWICK (Editor, Automotive News): The Big Three automakers would get hammered by this. They would have to restrict the sale in all likelihood of big pickups and full-size sport utility vehicles, and that's how they make their money. They're going to fight it.

SCHALCH: They've already sued to block the rules in California, New York, Oregon, and Vermont. And the may get some help from the federal government. The Bush administration has argued that the states aren't permitted to regulate fuel economy. Even if California gets to keep its carbon dioxide standard, Congress could pass legislation barring other states from copying it. This hasn't deterred them. A block of states stretching from Maine to New Jersey is expected to adopt California's restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles by the end of the year. Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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