Delivering products we need, instead of products we have

An amazing revolution in automotive technology is underway—with important lessons for policymakers. The many technology advancements taking place today in the automobile industry are concrete evidence that strong government leadership and ambitious public policy can drive innovation. It is a lesson for finding solutions to climate change.

Only a couple of decades ago, car technology was seen as mature. Automakers vociferously opposed stronger fuel economy standards on the grounds that it would be costly and require a shrinking of vehicles—that it would be out of line with what consumers wanted. Car industry leaders insisted the technology didn’t exist to meet tougher standards. Leaders of GM, Ford, and Chrysler played on public fears of lost jobs. Car company lobbyists organized unions to oppose stronger environmental and social performance standards. Law suits were pitched. But the delays created by this process were eventually overcome.

Strong leaders like Congressman Ed Markey, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and ultimately President Obama took a stand for more stringent requirements for automakers.  Instead of continuing a lose-lose legacy business strategy, the car industry has stepped up to the plate.  They are now accumulating record profits, only a few years after nearly collapsing.  

Automakers are on track to achieve a doubling of fuel economy standards to 54 mpg by 2025. In fact, with continuing improvements, another doubling is plausible by 2040—representing a 75% reduction in energy use and, as fuels increasingly come from renewable electricity and low-carbon biofuels and hydrogen, an even larger reduction in carbon emissions. No other sector or major industry is on track to achieve the 80% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions targeted by President Obama, the European Union and many others for 2050. The automotive industry is to be congratulated and other industries should learn from their embrace of innovation and change. 

The key to the industry’s success in bringing the public more sustainable products has come from science and engineering. Advancements in material science and aeronautic design have been tapped to create lighter materials that are stronger and safer than steel but require less horsepower to propel. That same kind of innovation brought the US Oracle team an amazing victory in the America’s Cup last year. The body of Ford’s iconic F-150 pickup truck is now being made with lightweight aluminum and BMW’s I3 electric car with carbon fiber, in both cases requiring entirely new manufacturing processes.

Engine innovation is also reaching new heights. Classic 8 cylinder engines are being downsized and replaced with turbocharged and direct injection engines that can offer the same high performance with less fuel. Snappy cars with small 3-cyliner, 1.0 liter engines are also now proliferating.  Even more impressively, with all this reduction in weight and efficiency, new vehicles are more powerful and safer than ever. Moreover, these innovations are saving jobs and driving economic recovery in the face of a major recession. Few imagined this transformation of our cars was possible just a decade ago.  

It is important that we stay the course and understand that the 54 mpg car is just the first step.  The next big step will be based on electric-drive technology—building on today’s plug-in hybrids such as the Chevy Volt and Ford Energi, battery electrics such as the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S, and fuel cell electrics by Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and Mercedes. These advanced vehicles are far more efficient than internal combustion engine vehicles and they can tap non-petroleum fuels that have lower carbon intensities. The result will be even much larger reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.  

The automotive revolution will reduce US oil consumption by several million barrels per day by 2025, and several more in the following years. But this is not just a US story.  Every major automotive market—including China—has even more aggressive fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas requirements in place.   This worldwide embrace of interventionist policy is motivated by the realization that both consumers and society benefit from more efficient, low-carbon vehicles. 

The automotive revolution should be a lesson to all policy makers and especially to the current generation of corporate leaders from other sectors clinging only to legacy fossil assets. Excessive commitment to those assets is not only risky to society but also for shareholders.  Tapping the best science to deliver products we need, instead of products we have, is the best way to sustainable growth. 


Dr. Daniel Sperling is Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy, and founding Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. He is the 2013 recipient of the Blue Planet Prize, a prize often described as the Nobel Prize for the environmental sciences. He has authored or co-authored over 200 technical papers and 11 books, including Two Billion Cars (Oxford University Press, 2009). Dr. Sterling is a frequent guest on NPR, including Science Friday, Talk of the Nation and Fresh Air, and also appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Twitter: @ITS_UCDavis

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