Let’s face it—nobody in the automotive industry actually loves the idea of the 54.5 mpg (40 mpg in real-world driving conditions) vehicle fleet average mandated by the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard. That number was not arrived at via scientific analysis; it was a mandate pulled out of the ether and made into law with little regard for science. But when the mandate came down, engineers had to quickly figure out how this potentiality could become reality.
Of course, this is often how innovation happens: Engineers are asked to achieve something they never thought of or thought possible. Through materials research, processing trial and error, and the marvelous use of plastics—the material “greens” love to hate—manufacturers came up with exciting new ways to lightweight vehicles. (It must really frost the “greens” that it requires the use of more of that dreaded plastic to help cut vehicle emissions!)
According to a Wall Street Journal article from March 6, 2017, “EPA to Undo Fuel-Economy Goals,” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “is near reversing an Obama administration decision to lock in future stringent vehicle fuel and emission standards after automakers lobbied the agency’s new chief to reopen a review of the regulations.” Vehicle makers want the standards “relaxed under the Trump administration after the EPA decided to keep them roughly a week before Inauguration Day.” Environmental groups want the standards kept in place, but those standards are scheduled for review.
Now that so much money and R&D resources have been spent to meet a mandate that few— except the folks at EPA—really liked or thought possible, what will be the cost to unwind all of this? And now that we’ve come this far, how can we take the best of what has been accomplished and continue to incorporate new technology into vehicles that will be truly beneficial, and throw out the rest? Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
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In September of last year, the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) issued a study, "Assessing the Fleet-wide Material Technology and Costs to Lightweight Vehicles," to provide insight into the technology and cost to reduce vehicle weight for the U.S. fleet of light-duty vehicles. CAR collected actual automaker data on lightweighting technology, rather than using models that extrapolate projected estimates, from more than 1,000 vehicle models with differing levels of inherent technology. “The average baseline of today’s lightweighting technology in the U.S. fleet is largely unknown,” said the introduction to CAR’s study.
Obviously, all the R&D that has been performed over the past eight years has its benefits. There’s certainly nothing wrong with developing new automotive technology and materials, and