Research Dollars for Greener Cars

Sometimes we zoom down the road without knowing exactly where we are going. Then, it’s time to stop and ask for directions. When that happens on our drive to sustainable transportation strategies, we give a call to John DeCicco, senior fellow at Environmental Defense.


In the past 20 years, automakers and government agencies have invested billions of research dollars into improving automobile fuel efficiency. Yet, vehicle fuel economy is stagnant. Was the money wasted?

John’s Reply

The American public has not seen a return on the substantial investment of tax dollars into auto efficiency R&D, and so it’s difficult to say that the funds were well spent. Research should not be used as an excuse for inaction, but U.S. leaders seem to prefer throwing money at the automobile energy use problem rather than taking steps to solve it. In their perennial fascination with "supercar" research, politicians from both parties wait for breakthroughs while shirking a duty to pursue policies that would make better use of technologies already at hand.

Underlying this avoidance behavior is a seductive but fallacious logic. Everyone agrees that "technology is the solution," meaning that innovation enables cuts in fuel use and CO2 emissions while maintaining affordability, performance and other popular features of motor vehicles. The fallacy occurs when one beguilingly defines the degree of technological progress at a level that requires breakthroughs. That’s what’s so seductive, especially for entrapping those who care about the issue and might otherwise be critical of inaction.

Who can argue with a tripling of fuel efficiency? That was a goal of the Clinton Administration’s supercar program, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles ("PNGV"). Who can argue with a zero-pollution, petroleum-free hydrogen fuel cell vehicle? That’s a goal of the Bush Administration’s "FreedomCAR" initiative. But what about the 10%, 20% or even 50% reductions in CO2 emissions that could be had from mindful application of the same technology that’s already been going into cars to offer consumers ever more of everything but higher fuel economy?

In fact, lack of technology has never been a barrier to progress on the problems associated with fuel consumption. Today’s cars and light trucks are loaded with all sorts of innovations, including technology that yields record-breaking performance in ever more feature-laden vehicles each new model year.

Deceptively defining progress in terms of large leaps forward creates an imaginary chasm without a bridge for crossing it. How do you reach the zero-emissions car, as President Bush promised today’s children when they grow up, from the average 5 tons of CO2 per year emitted by new vehicles today? Only with a ramp of gradual changes. We’ll know that such a bridge is being built when leaders tell us exactly what year we’ll see a fleet averaging 4 tons of CO2 per year, and then one averaging 3 tons, and so on. In fact, based on EPA analysis, today’s vehicles would emit less than 4 tons of CO2 per year if the technology they contain had been applied to raise efficiency instead of making them heavier and faster.

It’s not that technology R&D isn’t a worthy undertaking. But absent a context that applies the innovations to truly address the problems that rationalize the research, no amount of invention will matter. Government has a role in supporting R&D for long-term, high-risk options such as hydrogen. Supercar research may pay off if, for example, it yields breakthroughs that make fuel cell cars practical. But history shows the futility of research pursued in isolation from a complete strategy that includes policies for cutting fuel use by using technologies already on the shelf.

Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, John DeCicco is a Ph.D. mechanical engineer who specializes in automotive strategies for Environmental Defense, where he evaluates vehicle technologies and helps develop market-based policies for addressing the car-climate challenge. John was the original creator of ACEEE’s Green Book, which references for the its Gas Mileage Impact Calculator and lists of the "greenest" and "meanest" vehicles, and he has published widely-cited technical studies on automotive energy and climate issues.

  • Dollars

    I agree that making sure governments sustain funding for research and deveolpment in order for real change to happen.