Energy Law Targets Fuel Economy, Alternatives The Energy Bill that President Bush signed into law Wednesday mandates an increase in automotive fuel efficiency for the first time in 32 years. Under the new law, cars, SUVs and small trucks must get at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020.
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Energy Law Targets Fuel Economy, Alternatives

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Energy Law Targets Fuel Economy, Alternatives

Energy Law Targets Fuel Economy, Alternatives

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

It is 806 pages of new standards and directives, tax breaks and grants. By any measure the energy bill that President Bush signed into law today is a major piece of legislation. And at a White House ceremony, Mr. Bush praised Congress for sending it to him.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We make a major step toward reducing our dependence on oil, confronting global climate change, expanding the production of renewable fuels and giving future generations of our country a nation that is stronger, cleaner, and more secure.

(Soundbite of applause)

BLOCK: Critics will argue about just what the energy bill will do and what it won't, but there is no doubt that it will have a big impact on how and what we drive, how we heat our homes, and how we keep our businesses humming along.

NORRIS: We're going to begin this hour of the show by talking about three key parts of the bill. We'll hear about new fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, new requirements to increase the use of ethanol and other biofuels, and the role of alternative energy sources which are not a major focus of the bill.

BLOCK: First up, fuel economy. The last time Congress increased fuel economy standards it was 1975. Today's legislation raises that standard by 40 percent which means cars and small trucks, including SUVs, will have to average 35 miles per gallon by the year 2020.

So how will automakers get there? I put that question to Daniel Sperling. He is director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis, and an adviser to the auto industry.

Professor DANIEL SPERLING (Director, Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California-Davis): There is a lot of technology that already exist, that's already in some vehicles, and what we're going to see is that technology spread more, and that includes things, like turning off some of the cylinders when you're just cruising or coasting instead of needing - having all eight cylinders pounding. We have the technology where the car engine can now turn off when you stop and, therefore, you save gas when you're idling. We have continuously variable transmissions, so that the transmissions are more efficient.

And then, of course, the bigger changes are the hybridization. More cars that are more hybridized with electric capabilities matched up with a combustion engine. Diesel engines is another innovation. And then in the future, there's going to be even more adventurous technologies.

BLOCK: You're describing a range of technologies, many of which you say are out there, just aren't being used. Do you think that it really will take 12 years to get to the 35-mile per gallon average or could this have been done in a shorter period of time?

Prof. SPERLING: Oh, it can be done - definitely can be done in a shorter period of time. You know, one way of thinking about it is that we've seen, as we look back in time, that the efficiency of cars has increased a lot over the years, but all of that efficiency has been used to make the vehicles more powerful and bigger. So if we just - we've had, essentially, a horsepower race, like cars in the mid-'80s to go from zero to 60 miles per hour, it took fourteen-and-a-half seconds. Now, to go zero to 60, the average car does it in nine-and-a-half seconds.

Today's granny car would have been a muscle car back in the '80s. We've really changed the performance expectations of our cars, so if we just crank that back just a little bit and put the new technology in, we can do much better than 35 mpg in 2020.

BLOCK: Professor Sperling, you advise executives in the auto industry. Why do you think Detroit went along with this?

Prof. SPERLING: Well, they went along kicking and screaming. I went back and I found quotes from 1991 that said fighting CAFE standards was the most important policy initiative for the Detroit companies. So this has been a top issue for them for many years, fighting it because they've wanted - they've decided that they were most competitive in building the big vehicles. And so they've fought the CAFE standards because it goes right to the bottom line for them. They finally, you know, because of climate change, because of the emphasis on the problems in Iraq and oil and high gasoline prices, they've been forced to back off and to accept, you know, these higher CAFE standards, but they've been fighting them tooth and nail - the Detroit companies have been fighting them tooth and nail for over 15 years.

BLOCK: When you talk to these auto executives, what do you tell them about this? What have you been telling them over the years?

Prof. SPERLING: I've been telling them that at some point, the market's going to shift and in any case, it's becoming more and more obvious that we're going to make - have to make dramatic changes in our energy system and in our automotive industry. And the sooner they prepare for it, the better off they're going to be. The primary thrust of this is going to be that people are going to want more fuel-efficient vehicles, and vehicles that are good - good for the world, good for the environment.

BLOCK: Well, Daniel Sperling, thanks very much.

Prof. SPERLING: Thank you.

BLOCK: Daniel Sperling is director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC-Davis.

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