Toyota Highlander SUV with fuel cell engine
Toyota's fuel cell-powered Highlander SUV demonstrates the potential of a zero-emission power plant, but serious obstacles remain before consumers will be able to own these remarkable vehicles.

Critical Eye - Part 2

Conclusion of exclusive interview with John DeCicco, author of the AEEE's Green Book, The Environmental Guide to Cars and Trucks.

By Bill Moore

According to John DeCicco, there is a general consensus in and around the US Capitol that the nation needs to be doing more in the way of conservation, energy efficiency and clean technologies. The problem is, few seem to agree on the means and extent to which the nation needs to respond. Even President Bush is starting to talk about the need for conservation, as he did in his recent State-of-the-Union address.

Within the environmental community, DeCicco observed, "I think that we're cheered by hearing the word "conservation." We were cheered to some extent by the fact that it got mentioned in the Bush-Cheney energy plan that was released earlier last year. But so far, what we're seeing in terms of concrete policy from this administration in that area, largely comes up short.

"The administration was largely on board with the House energy package in July and that had a lot of shortcomings from an environmental point of view. And to put it bluntly there was a phony fuel economy measure put in there that will probably result in no net fuel savings in that sector, and no real commitment to commercialize the best versions of new technologies."

"So, we are still looking for some better leadership in this area right now in Washington," DeCicco stated. "There's a sense that things need to be done, but I think we're clearly looking for some better leadership than we are getting, certainly from the (Bush) administration."

DeCicco also pointed out that although the Democratic leadership of the Senate in the form of Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) has offered his own energy plan, "in the tough areas like auto fuel economy, he has been very vague about that." As a whole, DeCicco sees little real leadership on these critical areas emerging from either the Republican or Democratic parties.

New Paint For the Same Old Car?
The recently announced Freedom CAR program, which has some $150 million dollars set aside for it in the Presidents new budget, would seem to indicate the Administration's growing confidence in fuel cells and hydrogen technology. But for DeCicco, it gets a mixed review.

"The research towards a hydrogen fuel cell future is legitimate and valuable," he stated. "In the Freedom CAR announcement, they essentially ratified the commitments this administration had already made earlier. . . We're heartened that there will be, at least, a staying the course from the level of commitment to R&D in this area that we've had that's taken the technology to the point that it is now from the commitments made under the previous (Clinton) administration.

"I think the prospects for Freedom CAR to be more successful than PNGV are going to hinge on the extent to which this administration and the Congress really put in place the requirements that the technology gets used to improve efficiency and gets used sooner rather than maybe someday later."

On the negative side, DeCicco sees the high-profile announcement, wrapping the program in the flag, as giving car companies -- in this case GM -- an opportunity to showcase its AUTOnomy concept vehicle program while suggesting that it should no longer be bothered with implementing fuel economy improvements in this near-term product plans.

"That's a strong negative that gets back to the 'fig leaf' problem," he stated. "I think it a disservice to the engineers working on these issues, a disservice to the American consumer when (carmakers) are taking legitimate and promising research directions like this and using it as a foil against overdue and badly needed regulatory progress on auto efficiency."

Similarly DeCicco gives Freedom CAR's predecessor -- the PNGV program -- an equally mixed review. From his perspective, American carmakers used the program's long-term R&D goals an "inoculation against accountability" for a lack of real progress in the area of fuel efficiency over the last decade.

Not the PNGV didn't have its positive aspects. "It was under PNGV that fuel cells advanced over the last nine years," DeCicco pointed out.

However, he added that when PNGV was announced in 1993, it had three major goals. These included improving the competitive of the US auto industry, to deploy new efficiency and emission control technology as it became available, and finally, to develop a family sedan with 80mpg fuel efficiency.

"If we look back and say these are the three goals that they set out for themselves, I think the greatest lost opportunities really has more to do with goals one and two," DeCicco. "If you look at the competitiveness issue, well, frankly, Honda and Toyota have beaten the pants off the big three in getting the technology to market."

He explained that if you just look at goal two -- improved fuel efficiency -- over the last eight years, US fuel economy has declined.

"I have come to call goal two, the orphan goal of the partnership. They forgot about deploying things to deliver near-term benefits. That relates to the statement I made earlier, that without the commitment to really improve efficiency across the board, we wont' drive progress just by throwing R&D dollars at it."

DeCicco says this is a lesson that the current Administration needs to quickly learn.

"I think the prospects for Freedom CAR to be more successful than PNGV are going to hinge on the extent to which this administration and the Congress really put in place the requirements that the technology gets used to improve efficiency and gets used sooner than maybe someday later."

Higher CAFE and Traffic Deaths
Critics of raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards in the US claim that doing so will result in a greater number of traffic deaths on American roads, an argument DeCicco rejects.

According to the critics, in order for carmakers to improve efficiency they have to build smaller or lighter vehicles. DeCicco doesn't believe this will result in more deaths on the nation's roads. He points out that making cars lighter is only one of a set of technology tools designers can use to improve fuel efficiency.

"People also confuse mass with size," he continued. "There is nothing inherently protective from an overall safety point of view about mass for mass sake. Vehicles do need adequate crush space and energy absorbing capabilities and statistically it has been impossible to unravel mass from the size part of the equation. And a technology based solution on efficiency involves making vehicles lighter without making them smaller. It's not clear whether there's any safety risk whatsoever, if you take that route."

"Then there is a third element of the fallacy," he responded. "That's the one of individual risk versus societal risk. The visceral argument the car companies and their apologists advance that big, heavy wins over small, light. But what that implies is that one person's protection come at another's expense. And in fact, from a public safety point of view we end up no better off as a society..."

"But then if you go beyond that and look at the accident statistics and what's really been happening over the last decade, the fleet has been getting heavier due to the increased sales of heavier vehicles such as SUVs. And guess what, the accident statistics show that more people are being killed as result. The fact that the fleet has actually gotten heavier is causing problems in terms of traffic safety. The damage done to others on the road outweighs any marginal benefits of protection for the individual driving the heavier vehicle. In fact, it is not clear that the heavier vehicles are safer because a lot of them are prone to rollover.

"If you slice apart the accident statistics what you see is a steady decline in fatalities in car-to-car crashes and single car crashes of cars, but we see increased problems in truck to car crashes and rollovers. As a result there has been no progress in overall fatalities in recent years. It's been holding steady. And the improvements in car safety as a result of improved structures, airbags and those sorts of things, have been offset by the adverse safety effects due to the rise of light trucks and SUVs.

"When you look at the accident statistics and take a society perspective that that simplistic argument is very fallacious."

DeCicco contends that if carmakers took a best-of-technology approach to addressing both fuel efficiency and safety in both passenger cars and light trucks, that the net result would be a safer, more efficient fleet.

But Do People Really Care?
While seeking to improve fuel efficiency is a laudable goal that EV World strongly endorses, the question is does the average car buyer in America really care about whether or not his or her car is "green"?

DeCicco responded that he didn't think those of use involved in this debate have done anywhere near enough to educate and inform the American car buying public about this issue. Over the last five years the public response to the Green Book has been positive, so much so that he thinks, "there is a real interest out there."

"I think the American public cares about the environment. They care about that in the cars they drive. But there is an information gap, an education gap. A lot of people don't clearly associate the efficiency of their vehicle with global warming. They don't clearly associate vehicle choice with (its) health impact. I think there is a latent interest there, but I think much more could be done to exploit it and empower consumers to act their green impulses."

The Green Book can be ordered on the following web sites:


DeCicco's SAE report, "Fuel Cell Vehicles: Technology and Policy Issues," can be ordered directly from the Society of Automotive Engineers at http://fuelcells.sae.org.

Times Article Viewed: 5137
Published: 09-Feb-2002


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