Energy Bill Seeks More Miles for Every Gallon Energy legislation currently moving through Congress could result in an increase in fuel-efficiency standards for the U.S. auto fleet — up to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. Guests discuss the legislation and talk about new research that seeks to improve the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks.
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Energy Bill Seeks More Miles for Every Gallon

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Energy Bill Seeks More Miles for Every Gallon

Energy Bill Seeks More Miles for Every Gallon

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Late yesterday, the House passed a broad energy bill with many provisions but one, in particular, stands out. It is the first time in over 30 years that the so-called CAFE standards. It has nothing to do with coffee. You'll hear this term bantered about a lot.

CAFE, Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards - Washington's way of talking. They would increase from 27 miles per gallon per cars and 22 miles per gallon for light trucks today to a fleet-wide average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

The bill is now in the Senate. It has reached some hurdles in the Senate. It could face some changes. President Bush has already threatened a veto unless certain changes are made to the legislation. We'll have to follow and see what happens.

But the question remains: Why has it taken so long? 30 years to increase gas mileage? We can all understand the politics of the issue. There is strong opposition - there has always been a strong opposition from influential politicians in Michigan. But what about the technological side? How difficult is it to make cars and trucks - they get 35 miles per gallon or more.

If the largest Japanese company, Toyota, can make a car that gets 50 miles per gallon, the German company Volkswagen can make a diesel car that gets 40 miles per gallon, why can't the largest car companies in Detroit do the same thing?

That's what we'll be talking about - getting a view from experts and a view from a group of amateurs that says 35 mpg? That's no problem. Let's shoot for 100. And we'll show you how to do that.

If you'd like to join us, give us a call at 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Also, you can join a group of folks in SECOND LIFE at the Science School. Watch for the folks with the SCIENCE FRIDAY T-shirts there, sitting around in the seats.

Joining me now are my three guests. Therese Langer is the transportation program director at the American Council for Energy Efficient Economy. Therese Langer joins us from our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome to the program.

Ms. THERESE LANGER (Transportation Program Director, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy): Thanks. Good to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Harold Schock is a professor of mechanical engineering and is the director of the Engine Research Laboratory at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He joins us from the campus fair. Welcome back to the program, Dr. Schock.

Dr. HAROLD SCHOCK (Professor, Mechanical Engineering, Michigan State University; Director, Engine Research Laboratory): Thank you, Ira. I'm happy to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Anna Jaffe is a student at MIT and one of the founders of a group called the Vehicle Design Summit. That is an international organization of students that aims to design and create environmentally friendly cars. And she joins us from the studios on the MIT campus.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. ANNA JAFFE (Student, Massachusetts; Co-founder, Vehicle Design Summit): Thanks very much. It's a real honor to be here.

FLATOW: Tell us what you do, Anna. What is the project you're involved in?

Ms. JAFFE: Yeah, I'd love to. We're a group of now about 250 students, faculty, some of the world's leading experts in the automotive space, and we're collaborating to design and build a vehicle that achieve 200 mile per gallon emission and thermal equivalency. So, very efficient and also a vehicle that's seen 95 percent reduction in the materials and the energy and also the toxics that go into the use, the production - all of the light phases of the vehicle.

FLATOW: Now, we have seen these vehicles, you know, in car and test and contest going across the country. They look like something from outer space, you know, covered with solar panels and having bicycle gears, half pedaling half the time. But they don't seem like the kind of vehicles that average folk might buy. Is that - are you building something that might be more mendable(ph) to all of us to buy or something like will win a contest?

Ms. JAFFE: The goal of the vehicle is a 100 percent to see it go to market. Initially, we're looking at an Indian context and an Indian market because they have such growth in their automotive industry today, but the vehicle is a plug-in series hybrid. So I'm sure people have seen those in showrooms even. It's a four-passenger vehicle. And we have a huge design team working to make it something that that really catches your eye. You know, that isn't just a spaceship or a saucer flying by.

FLATOW: Yeah, and how close do you think - how long will it take you to get to those goals? How about 100 miles per gallon?

Ms. JAFFE: Well, this February, we're convening our - almost our entire team in Aachen, Germany to build the first prototype, and our goal is to have a vehicle that that see the factor-10 improvement in the embodied energy may be a 100 mile per gallon energy equivalency, so about halfway to our goal by next summer and to be all the way to our end goal with a vehicle that's really ready for production and all the parts have been tested, some crashing has gone on. We really understand how the source and supply everything in the vehicle by the end of the summer of 2009.

FLATOW: Why do think that the normal, so to speak, car companies haven't been able to do this yet?

Ms. JAFFE: Well, I think they have incredible, incredible capacity. If you to their RND centers, right, they're huge, and there are brilliant, brilliant people. I think one challenge is, you know, you have a culture, and they've got 200 years of history built up and huge capital investments in their factories. And it's very hard to change direction quickly.

I think one huge advantage we have is, you know, we're a group of students. We're advised by open-minded people. Now, we have no stockholders, we have no shareholders, we just have the world and the public as the group of people we're working for. And that's just a huge opportunity because we can do whatever we think is the best possible option.

The reason we picked India is because as its market expands, now there's a huge amount of competition and pressure on indigenous companies there, and our hope is to see them be willing to take a little bit of a risk and really set the stage for a game-changing vehicle, then could come back to the United States, it could go to Europe. It could go to China, but first, could be tested and validated and verified in that particular market.

FLATOW: Harold Schock, has Anna Jaffe summed up the state of Detroit these days correctly?

Dr. SCHOCK: Well, I think she summed it up pretty well for India, but for cars that are will be sold in the United States, I think the buyers in the U.S. are a bit more discriminating than, perhaps, the buyers in India. Their mission is also likely quite different. And many places in the Midwest and all over the country as we spend along time in vehicles, we'd like to have comfortable vehicles, also have good fuel economy. And oftentimes, sort of a number of purposes other than just transporting one person from one location to another.

FLATOW: But doesn't Detroit have a history of mis-guessing(ph) the market. I mean, before, with the first oil crisis allowing the Japanese companies to get a big foot all because they didn't want to produce the smaller cars. To now, we have a Prius which is what, the fourth biggest selling car in the country.

Dr. SCHOCK: There is no doubt that, you know, companies that have been around as long as General Motors and Ford and Chrysler now make errors. It's interesting, though, if you think about the literally hundreds of thousand of people that these companies supported, you know, over the last hundreds of years, probably millions of people and the lifestyles they've created for these people. That's actually - those middle-class lifestyles are actually part of a major problem the auto industries are having today.

The legacy, let's take General Motors for example. They make about 4 million cars a year, and legacy cost are depending on, you know, where you estimate between 1,000 and $3,000 per car more than the transplant companies that are started up with younger workers. Take $2,000 per car. Multiply that - times 4 million cars. That's a huge amount of money.

FLATOW: Therese Langer, did the energy bill - does it do anything that help out to Anna Jaffe or any - other people who wanted develop these alternative cars?

MS. LANGER: Well, I think there's a big gap between the cutting-edge technology development that Anna was discussing and where we are today in terms of what is required to meet the new standards. The new standards are really very ambitious - 40 percent increase from today's averages. And really what's called for there is technologies that are already here today. It's a matter of the manufacturers putting them into the vehicles - we're talking about incremental improvements. But I think that having this kind of an increase is the most important step towards getting, eventually, towards as much more advance technology say, Anna's talking about.

FLATOW: One would think that it would be to Detroit's benefit to see, you know, the advantage of going in this direction. They wouldn't be dragged kicking and screaming into this, but they could see - they could sell more cars.

MS. LANGER: Well, I think that they have a number of business priorities that they need to balance, and I think it's actually unfortunate that they have not had the same ability or, perhaps, luxury - that even some of the import companies have had - to look for into the future. In that, they need to look at the bottom line, on the quarterly basis. And we've had a decade of really very impressive profits from some of the larger vehicles, and so it's understandable in a sense that the Detroit companies have stuck with those vehicles.

But now, it's clear especially as necessity grows to compete in a global market place - at global vehicle market place, that this kind of advance is really necessary for their survival.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phone. Barry(ph) in the Flagstaff. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

BARRY (Caller): Hi, Ira. I'm right here next to Northern Arizona University on (unintelligible). I just want to agree that they could be doing a lot more with regards to fuel economy by year 2020. So that's my main point.

FLATOW: Okay. Let me…

BARRY: I'm a student.

FLATOW: Yeah.

BARRY: I want to start my own company. And I feel that, you know, the climate change and the pollution in the air is just disgraceful. And, you know, it makes me ill really.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me get a reaction. Harold, do you think they could do 35 in their sleep?

Dr. SCHOCK: Of course, some of the cars that are sold today by both U.S. and foreign companies - foreign home-based companies absolutely do 35-plus miles per gallon, those that are fitted with diesel engines. The real issue has been that the price of fuel has been so low that implementing the technology that can be used to achieve these high-mileage vehicles really hasn't been an important priority.

I think that as an example, probably, was really pushed this new CAFE standard is more political factor as having to do with the war in Iraq, with the price of gasoline resulting from those sorts of things then, you know, then public demand just for a better fuel economy.

FLATOW: Anna Jaffe, what - if you can narrow it down to one component or a couple of components - that you are working on that gives you the efficiency that's much greater than what Detroit can do, and how could that component be brought, you know, to a larger scale?

Ms. JAFFE: So we're looking very closely at which components could be sourced globally and that's relevant globally. I think the most immediate technology that's very much available off the shelf, the drive terrain for our vehicle is a plug-in series hybrid configuration.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. JAFFE: So that means an electric motor drives the wheels. There's basically just a little generator. You could think about that as your engine. And we're designing that little generator so it could very easily go in and out of the vehicle, so you could run on hydrogen, or biogas, or ethanol, or compressed natural gas.

The other advantage is that the APU or the little generator is - it's very small. And because it doesn't drive the wheels, it can run at peak efficiency all the time. So the electric drive has a very high efficiency. And then the little generator engine is also running at peak efficiency. And from a physical standpoint that's probably the most important. Along with that, aerodynamics and a little bit of ultra lighting, some very clever safety measures, I'd say all of those really should improve the fuel economy drastically.

FLATOW: Once the…

Ms. JAFFE: And there's the other piece - sorry to jumped in.

FLATOW: No, go ahead. The other piece…

Ms. JAFFE: I think the last piece is - we're talking a little bit about market ability of the vehicle. One of our goals is to provide either micro wind or solar. So if you buy a vehicle, you get clean renewable power. And that should also pretty drastically improve the system's efficiency of the vehicle.

FLATOW: We're talking about fuel-efficient car this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm talking with Therese Langer, Harold Schock and Anna Jaffe.

But we keep hearing Detroit saying they're waiting, and I think they're moving toward the plug-in hybrid or - a type of vehicle also. But we hear Detroit keep saying that the batteries aren't good enough yet. The batteries are not good enough yet.

Anna Jaffe, how come you don't have that problem with the batteries not being good enough?

Ms. JAFFE: Well, you know, I wouldn't say we've solved it, but I think one clever thing we're looking at in India is to create a secondary market for the batteries. So, instead of paying, basically, the full cost for the battery, you'd buy maybe a third of the battery pack. So, in our case, our price point - our goal MSRP is about $9,000. A decent amount of that would be the battery. It's obviously smaller because the car is much lighter and efficient. But then a utility maybe two or five or 10 years down the road, whenever that battery pack can only carry 75 or 80 percent of its initial capacity of electricity, we'll buy those batteries. And so because we're looking at an integrated service model like Zipcar or GoLoco…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. JAFFE: …that service company will actually carry some of the cost of the battery. And they'll get their investment back when they resell that battery to the utility later on.

FLATOW: Harold Schock, still a limiting power for plug-ins in Detroit is the batteries?

Dr. SCHOCK: Well, the battery is an issue. It's a heavy expense. The General Motors is working on a development of our car called the Vault, which is also a plug-in hybrid. I guess, with research and selective routes, these plug-in hybrids really have a good application, and it sounds like, you know, what Anna is talking about for, you know, certain aspects of transportation in India would be quite suitable.

In the U.S., though, there's many things - in Japan and Germany, we're doing many things to improve the efficiency of current internal combustion engines. If you run a diesel engine at its most efficient point, you can convert nearly 50 percent of the fuel's energy into mechanical work. And when you integrate that with a hybrid system you have for transportation, a very, very efficient power train.

Similar gain can be made by advanced gasoline-fueled engines. Many of us are working on a technology called Homogenous Charged Compression Ignition. We're looking at ways of using ethanol to not only extend the natural resource of hydrocarbon fuel but also to improve the efficiency of engines by being able to selectively run the engines at a higher compression ratios by using ethanol at the appropriate times. So, as the price of fuel goes up, you'll see, you know, improved engines and power trains that, you know, the consumers will be a lot more willing to pay for.

FLATOW: Now, we still - I saw my local service station, diesel fuel was 3.99 a gallon. So that's a penny away from $4.

We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more about the energy with my guests Therese Langer, Harold Schock and Anna Jaffe. I'll take some of your calls, 1-800-989-8255, talking about energy efficiency. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about increasing energy efficiency in automobiles with my guests Therese Langer of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, Harold Schock of Michigan State University, and Anna Jaffe of MIT and one of the founders of the Vehicle Design Summit. Our number 1-800-989-8255.

Therese Langer, did the public want, you know, these big gasoline cars or do they want something more efficient?

MS. LANGER: I think consumer preferences are changing. And the fact is that people have expressed an interest now for years. I would say the overwhelming majority of consumers have expressed an interest in more efficient vehicles essentially if they can buy the same vehicle that they were going to buy anyway, just a vehicle with more technology to get it more miles per gallon.

I think that a combination of issues has resulted in something of a shift of people's idea of what car they might want. I don't know that it will be a rapid shift, but the conversions of the high prices at the gas pump for an extended period of time with increasing concerns about oil dependence, global warming, I think, are really making people rethink what they want their vehicle to look like and behave like.

FLATOW: I have a question from Second Life from Juway Noel(ph) about discussing hydrogen as an option. Anna Jaffe, can your car of the future burn hydrogen if it needs to?

Ms. JAFFE: We actually have six teams working just on the combustion unit. One of them is working on a hydrogen combustion engine, a very small generator, and the other is working on a very small fuel cell. So fuel cells are expensive because they're the only thing that moves the car. But if they run all the time and just power the batteries, they actually worked out to be pretty inexpensive. Along with that, we're looking pretty carefully at biological hydrogen production, hydrogen from wind. We're really trying to design the whole system so we don't, you know, caused any problems that we don't mean.

FLATOW: Some of the new research on hydrogen coming from bacteria.

Ms. JAFFE: Yeah, exactly.

FLATOW: You're looking into those sorts of things. So everything is fair game for you?

Ms. JAFFE: Absolutely everything.

FLATOW: Wow. Harold Schock…

Ms. JAFFE: And we'd…

FLATOW: I'm sorry. Go ahead, Anna.

Ms. JAFFE: Oh, I was just going to say we tried to stay focus, but we have a pretty open mind when it comes to what we think about.

FLATOW: Harold, is there any hydrogen in Detroit's future?

Dr. SCHOCK: Well, General Motors is putting a lot of interest and effort into the possibilities of using hydrogen. The real issue, of course, with hydrogen is that the availability of hydrogen presently is quite limited. It's made from hydrocarbon fuels from natural gas. And when you strip the hydrogen from the hydrocarbon natural gas, you end up with about half the energy that you started with and you still have to do something about sequestering the CO2. So although hydrogen is really an ultimate fuel, you know, it's going to be many, many years before we actually can practically have hydrogen powered vehicles. My guess is decades.

FLATOW: Interesting to hear both - hear you and Anna talked about hydrogen as such diametrically opposed terms. You look at the old way of taking hydrogen out of - it has to come out of fossil fuels and Anna talks about all kinds of new technology that don't depend on fossil fuels at all.

Dr. SCHOCK: It's a great idea to try and develop these technologies. And, you know, all over the world including at Michigan State and other places, people would love to have, you know, hydrogen at a low cost. But the fact is hydrogen just will not compete with hydrocarbon fuel at this point and time for cost.

FLATOW: How many dollars a barrel does GOIL have to get before that happens? We said there's $30 a barrel, now its $60. They talked about it again. Now, we're almost $100 a barrel. We keep…

Dr. SCHOCK: If you…

FLATOW: …and we keep hearing that, and so I'm wondering where that point is. Are they…

Dr. SCHOCK: Ira, if you mix the hydrogen from oil, the more expensive the oil get, the worse the price differential becomes.

FLATOW: Bingo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: You got my point exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's what I'm talking about - Anna is talking about different ways of making hydrogen with - that don't depend on oil and maybe making it cheaper that way.

Dr. SCHOCK: But it's one thing to, you know, talk about having such resources and cheap hydrogen and it's another thing to replace the 20 million barrels of oil we used each day.

FLATOW: Therese Langer, it's basically coming down - wouldn't that boil down to an energy policy that incorporates all of these kinds of things that we don't have?

Ms. LANGER: Well, let me just say that the really very significant step that we're seeing at the members of Congress take right now…

FLATOW: Did we lose you? I think we lost Therese Langer. Well…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I think she was probably going to say that this was a significant step that they've, at least, got the CAFE standards up to 35 miles per gallon. We'll have her - we'll have to come back. And we've actually run on out of time. So I wanted to thank all my guests here taking time to be with us.

But, let me see if I - can we get Therese Langer back? As you know, let me ask, let me ask you, Harold, so can you pick up for her?

Dr. SCHOCK: Yeah. I just like to point out that in this energy bill all the U.S., all of the companies supported that bill from my understanding. And I think that, you know, there's no single source or no single solution for the energy crisis, things like trying to use LG to produce high (unintelligible). You know, developing advanced engines in the next 10 years and hybrid power trains. They're all bio-fuel development. Those are all important ideas and it's not going to be a single one of them that really solves our energy crisis.

FLATOW: Anna Jaffe, do you think it's up to folks like you with new ideas willing to take these risks who we're going to come up with the car of the future?

Ms. JAFFE: I think it's a mixed of things. I think our greatest strength is that we try to be humble when we listen to people who have greater wisdom than we do and yet, keep our minds open and ask good questions. You know, we're lucky because we have - we're young, we're excited and people are really willing to talk to us. But we certainly couldn't do it without having the opportunities to talk to people and all of the OEMs that tier one suppliers, companies that specialized in the components that go in cars. And, you know, system thinkers, designers, simulation model builders and so, so we certainly have a role to play.

FLATOW: All right.

Mr. JAFFE: And, I guess, yes, along the lines of - are, you know, the younger generations, oh, I'd say, you know. To those people who are listening, who maybe aren't interested in cars, I'd say the real goals of this project isn't necessarily just to figure out how to provide a this thing of movability, but to inspire people with big ideas, to find the right folks, whoever they might be, and worked with them and make tractions on some of these really big issues.

FLATOW: I want to thank all of my guests for being with us. Therese, have any last words before you drop off there?

Ms. LANGER: Well, I think that Anna's project sounds very exciting, so I'm looking forward to reading about it in the newspaper.

FLATOW: All right. Well, we will keep tract of Anna and her project. Anna Jaffe is a student at MIT and one of the founders of a group called the Vehicle Design Summit. And she is - and her group is trying to develop a 200 mile per gallon car or more.

Harold Schock is professor of mechanical engineering, director of the Engine Research lab at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

And Therese Langer is a transportation program director at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Thank you all for taking time to be with us this Friday.

Ms. JAFFE: Thank you.

Dr. SCHOCK: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

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