Lawmakers piece together moving parts on vehicle revolution

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, March 9, 2018

A House committee hearing on new vehicles and new fuels turned into a nerdfest as lawmakers and experts debated myriad issues, including high-octane fuel, hybrid engines and autonomous vehicles.

A fine but familiar line emerged as the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment grilled a panel of economic and technological experts: Democrats want lower emissions. Republicans want cheaper cars.

“Environmental considerations are certainly a factor, energy security is also a factor, but we can’t lose sight of the most important thing and that is the impact on the consumer,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), the subcommittee chairman.

“We want to make owning, operating and using a vehicle as affordable as possible for the American people, and I hope that this research helps in that regard,” he said.

The Trump administration is considering changes to two key policies: U.S. EPA’s greenhouse gas standards for cars and its renewable fuel standard.

“For the first time, the transportation sector has edged out the electricity sector,” said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the full committee, referring to EPA’s latest greenhouse gas inventory. “I am very concerned about the direction Trump is taking on low-carbon fuels and vehicles.”

The unlikely possibility of an increase in a gas tax could also change the way Americans get around. Although President Trump endorsed the idea of a 25-cent increase, the proposal remains anathema to most Republican leadership.

But it could speed the adoption of fuel-efficient technology like hybrids and plug-in vehicles, experts told lawmakers.

“When gas prices were at $3.50, interest from prospective buyers in hybrids was at 82 percent,” said John Eichberger, executive director of the Fuels Institute, citing an internal report from his group.

“When prices dropped below $2, interest dropped to 41 percent, and sales dropped too,” he said. “Fuel prices are a signal to consumers to start shopping around.”

Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) made the leap to a carbon tax, a thermos with an “I ♥ Clean Cars” sticker prominently displayed on his desk.

“If you expected higher prices from something like a carbon tax, people would be more incentivized to invest in these things,” he said.

The experts cautioned that radical changes in technology would take decades before hitting the roads in meaningful volumes. Electric vehicles barely cracked 1 percent of national sales last year.

“All transitions take time,” said Eichberger. “I caution the committee to be wary of projections. Change in this transportation system will not be like the car engine replacing a horse.”

John Farrell, the laboratory program manager for vehicle technologies at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said current policies could improve fuel efficiency of engines by 25 percent by 2030, and better fuels could add a 10 percent improvement.

“Given that the standards can be met without the full rollout of some of the technologies, like start-stop, there’s certainly opportunities to go beyond what’s set in the [corporate average fuel economy] standards,” said Jeremy Martin, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.