For the first time in two decades, the federal government, in collaboration with automakers and environmental groups, adopted new standards to significantly improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new cars and light trucks.
The design and implementation of this policy was led by William Charmley of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and James Tamm of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Together they surmounted complex technical issues to develop requirements for cars and light trucks manufactured between 2012 and 2025 that will nearly double the fuel economy standard to 54.5 miles per gallon and will cut greenhouse gas emissions in half.
The new standards will save 12 billion barrels of oil and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 6 billion metric tons.
“Both of them are really dedicated professionals who are also extremely perceptive about technical issues and unafraid to voice their own views or those of their agency,” said Daniel Smith, NHTSA’s senior associate administrator for vehicle safety.
Charmley, Tamm and their team of about 40 employees at two agencies worked closely with technical experts and automobile manufacturers, and coordinated their efforts with the state of California, which for years has set its own high emission standards and has demonstrated enough market clout to influence industry and federal decisions.
“With all the stakeholders and such large equities for all of them, it was a massive undertaking,” said Byron Bunker, director of EPA’s Compliance Division. “The high quality of the work and its ability to stand on its own is really what allowed us to drive through to a single solution.”
Achieving the higher standards required EPA and NHTSA staff to meet with parts suppliers and car companies to understand available technologies, how much cleaner they would make cars and how much such changes would cost in order to “formulate scenarios that had good technical underpinnings,” Charmley said.
“We asked, ‘What are the real-world implications of a standard that requires certain technologies? How fast can vehicle manufacturers implement them, given the strength of the automotive industry?’” said Charmley. “We had to make sure we were not doing something outside the capability of industry to meet the standards.”
The team worked with automotive consulting firms on computer modeling to build virtual vehicles. This allowed them to put different technologies on a virtual midsize car to see how much their proposed changes improved fuel efficiency. They also came up with a reverse engineering methodology to estimate the cost of building a number of different technologies, such as a new engine, at high volume.
The final standards were a compromise accepted by the environmental community and the automakers.
“We made every effort to listen to stakeholders and factor in their opinions,” Tamm said. “We went above and beyond what was required for conducting and sharing the technical analysis, and providing an opportunity for stakeholder response and public comment. It really helped us achieve broad support,” he said. “These absolutely are the most substantial rules there have been, and they will have a significant impact on our nation.”
The collaboration between NHTSA and EPA began in 2007 when the Supreme Court ruled that EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. EPA started looking at passenger cars, the single biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector.
During the end of the Bush administration, NHTSA worked on developing fuel economy standards through 2015, but the clock wound down as the recession was hitting the country and as some car companies sought government financial bailouts, The Bush administration chose not to rush a decision, according to Charmley.
Within the first few months of the Obama administration, the president issued a directive on fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards covering 2012 to 2016, and then another a year later for 2017 to 2025.
The teams worked under tight time constraints because U.S. law requires fuel economy standards be set for every year and industry be given advance warning. With much of the work already done, the agencies were able to get a rule adopted in time that raises the official fuel economy of new passenger cars and light trucks to 34.1 miles per gallon by model year 2016, up from the 27.6 miles per gallon level set for model year 2011.
For phase two, the president requested standards for vehicles manufactured from 2017 to 2025 under a “relatively aggressive time frame,” said Charmley.
Bunker said the effort amounted to “the most incredible rule-making processes I’ve ever observed.”
“This is going to substantially reduce the cost of driving your car and, at the same, reduce the greenhouse gas footprint, which is very important,” he said.