Heather Zichal, President Obama’s deputy assistant for energy and climate change, gave the final afternoon keynote address last week at the 5th International Environmentally Friendly Vehicle Conference at the Baltimore Convention Center.
Naturally (there’s an election coming up), Zichal took a moment to remind those in attendance, including conference partners General Motors, Ford, Honda, Nissan, Toyota and Hyundai, of the Obama administration’s rescue of the automobile industry. But just as quickly, she turned around and touted the brand new U.S. fuel standards, praising the automakers, unions and other industry stakeholders for their work together in raising the fuel efficiency bar.
On Aug. 28, the Obama Administration issued “groundbreaking” standards that will raise automobile fuel efficiency for cars and light-duty trucks to the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon — on average — by 2025. That’s roughly double the current mileage average today. The White House press release announcing the agreement can be found here.
The new standard adds to a previous Obama Administration effort that raised average fuel efficiency to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.
However, higher fuel standards are not the long-term solution to the production of environmentally friendly vehicles, Zichal added. She highlighted the inexorable link between transportation and oil — and thus, carbon emissions — that must be eventually broken. Bottom line, she told the audience, the U.S. will have to build a different type of car.
“Seventy percent of the oil we use today is in the transportation industry,” Zichal said. “There is no path to energy efficiency unless we change the cars and trucks we drive.”
Ironically, later in a conference breakout session, “Electric Cars and the Grid,” the point was made that higher fuel efficiency standards for ICE’s (internal combustion engines) — while necessary and good — mean greater competition for electric cars. For example, why switch and buy an electric car, if a consumer can stick to what they're used to and still save money, even if it’s not as much money.
David Friedman, deputy director of the Clean Vehicles Program with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said electric cars are currently projected to grow to a 10 percent market share by 2035.
After all, going from 25-27 miles per gallon average to 50-54 miles per gallon average, means spending half as much as the pump, assuming gas prices stay the same. That could translate into an $8,000 savings on fuel over the life of the vehicle, Zichal noted.
Ultimately, Zichal said, the higher fuel standards were not put into place to save consumers money at the pump; they’re about energy independence and reducing carbon emissions. According to the White House, the new fuel standards will reduce U.S. oil consumption by 12 billion barrels.
Yet, something doesn’t seem right about more fuel-efficient cars down the road potentially slowing sales of electric cars. Especially as our grid becomes powered more by sustainable sources, like wind, there’s a real opportunity for electric cars to become closer to genuine zero-emissions vehicles.