Driving In Circles
New Fuel-Efficiency Initiative Is More PR Than Progress
by Steven Rosenfeld
The Bush administration is giving Detroit a subsidy to develop
hydrogen-fueled cars. But if history is a guide, automakers will use the
program to cover their lack of any real progress on fuel efficiency.
Driving In Circles
New Fuel-Efficiency Initiative Is More PR Than Progress
Steven Rosenfeld is an audio producer and reporter for TomPaine.com.
The Bush administration has announced that an eight-year-old, $2
billion federal program to create high-mileage gas vehicles was being
scrapped and a new program -- focusing on hydrogen fuel-cells -- was
being created. The administration's decision has major consequences
for the U.S. economy, energy policy, national security and global
TomPaine.com's Steven Rosenfeld asked Jack Doyle, author of Taken for
A Ride: Detroit's Big Three and the Politics of Pollution, to discuss
the importance of this decision, the history behind it, and its
TomPaine.com: The Bush Administration is ending a federal program to
increase gas mileage to create so-called 80 mile-per-gallon cars, and
instead says it will focus on hydrogen fuel cell technology. How much
progress was being made toward the goal of more fuel-efficient
Jack Doyle: When the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles,
which is called PNGV, when that was created in 1993, [then
Vice-President] Al Gore was the chief architect. He looked at it as a
solution to getting the United States to [achieve] its global warming
obligations, to cut back on CO2, in particular.
The auto industry had come to Clinton and Gore just after the
election and said, 'We understand that you need some help on health
care and trade issues. We're willing to help you on those fronts if
you will back off on fuel economy.' It was never put in quite those
terms, but they had gone to Arkansas, during the transition, after
Clinton and Gore were elected, and a quid pro quo -- a deal was cut,
basically -- that said, 'Okay. We create this venture to get to an 80
mile-per-gallon car, fuel efficiency -- and you assure us that you
won't enact fuel-economy standards through Congress,' known as
Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, the acronym. This was, as I
think Clinton put it at the time, 'a moonshot for fuel economy.'
TP.c: So how much progress was actually made in the intervening years?
Doyle: Well, to make a long story short, what happened here is
basically, this PNGN became a hiding place for the Big Three
[automakers] on fuel economy. They got to look around the federal
labs. There's been nearly $2 billion of taxpayer money shoveled into
this venture and not much to show for it. In fact, it's really served
the automobile industry quite well. It really has kept them out of
the business of increasing fuel economy.
Our national fleet today, all the vehicles out there, average about
20 miles per gallon. That's a technological embarrassment. That's
just a real failure on the part of both the government and the auto
industry, because, when you think about it, go back to the first
energy crisis in the mid-1970s. Then vehicles were around 13
miles-per-gallon average. Look at the top-10 selling SUVs and trucks
today, they are getting about 16 miles-per-gallon.
TP.c: With the $2 billion that was spent on this program, were there
any tangible results?
Doyle: There were some technologies developed in the federal labs.
And there is probably some advance on batteries for electric
vehicles. But those advances probably would have occurred in the
federal laboratories, without the Big Three being involved.
This joint venture slowed things down, I think. It took away the
competitive edge. The irony of this PNGV venture, when it was first
established in 1993, the Japanese saw it. They became very concerned
about this, because they said, 'Wow, this looks like a major
initiative to get to electric or advanced vehicles, so we better step
up our effort.' And that's exactly what they did. Some of the
companies, namely Toyota and Honda, really redoubled their effort and
came up in five years -- Toyota did in five years -- what PNGV has
yet to do. The hybrid vehicle from Toyota, the Prius, gets nearly
50-60 mpg, the equivalent of that, with a half-electric, half
gasoline engine. And consequently today, General Motors, Ford and
Chrysler are about five years behind the Japanese on hybrid vehicle
TP.c: In Taken for a Ride, you've written extensively about the
automakers' repeated attempts, literally over the decades since World
War II, to delay implementing new technologies, whether for cleaner
exhaust or alternative fuels. So when the Administration today says
that there is going to be a shift in focus to hydrogen fuel cells,
how do you contextualize that announcement? Is it a lofty new goal,
that in reality will take years to implement, so they can keep
selling SUVs? Or is it a technology that actually could be poised to
be implemented in the near future?
Doyle: The fuel-cell vehicle, powered by hydrogen, that is the holy
grail of transportation technology right now. It is a lofty goal and
it is an important goal. And the federal government and the auto
industry should be pursuing it with no hesitation and should be
aggressive about it. However, what we have in this instance is really
a lot of rhetoric, I think, when you look at what's been happening.
It's an exact repeat of PNGV, because we're having the Big Three
again, along with the Energy Department, christening this project. I
think they're calling it 'Freedom Car' or something. They say, by the
way, there are no deadlines, no goals, but we have a 10-year program.
So I can't really put much faith in this. And every time the auto
industry sees a threat on the horizon, some kind of venture or
research monies are thrown at alternatives and nothing changes. You
have autoshow after autoshow after autoshow rolling out these
prototypes that never never get to production. It's a joke.
TP.c: So what is the relation of this White House announcement to the
Energy Bill that's now in the Senate?
Doyle: I believe it's really an effort, politically, to deflect
Congress from going forward with tough fuel-economy standards, and we
absolutely need those now. Now that's not to say that the
administration cannot elevate and prod fuel-cell production, which it
absolutely should, but we can have both.
There's no reason why we cannot pursue a fuel-cell program and
require tough fuel-economy standards today. This is a national
security problem. I mean, [Homeland Security Chief] Tom Ridge is
looking for homeland security issues, this should be at the top of
his list. Last year, we spent $106 billion or thereabouts on oil
imports. That's about $200,000 a minute leaving the country, just
leaving our economic system. So, there are security, there are
economic -- good, solid, flag-waving issues here -- to make fuel
economy a top priority in Detroit and elsewhere.
The only way we're going to do that is through enlightened public
policy. We can certainly pursue the fuel cell and we should. No
question about it, that leadership is welcome. But we need, also, to
have tough fuel-economy standards for the near-term.
Published: Jan 14 2002
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