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Summer 2013 Vol. 13 Number 1

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Earth-Friendly Vehicles and Fuels

What Will It Take for Americans
to Buy Into Alternatives?

ęGeorge Shewchuk/

By 2050, it may be possible for the U.S. to reduce the petroleum use and greenhouse gas emissions of light-duty vehicles to less than 20 percent of what they are today, according to a recent report by the National Research Council. We could see a fleet of highly efficient conventional vehicles mixed with vehicles running on electricity, biofuels, and/or hydrogen. The big question is whether American consumers will be willing to make the transition from the cars and light trucks that they love to unfamiliar yet more efficient vehicles.

The chief concern to individual drivers will likely be cost, said the committee that wrote the report. The efficient vehicles of the future will be several thousand dollars more expensive than today's conventional vehicles. While driving costs per mile will be lower, a high price tag might be a significant barrier to widespread acceptance.

Consumers are also accustomed to personal vehicles that come in a wide variety of sizes, styles, and prices, tailored to match unique needs and personalities. In the early years, alternative vehicles will be limited to a few body styles and sizes; some will require bulky energy storage that will reduce their cargo and passenger room, and others will have a restricted travel range or rely on fuels that are not readily available.

If the 2050 goals can be achieved, though, the societal benefits in transitioning to alternative vehicles and fuels would be tremendous -- especially for climate change and energy security, the report says. The barriers should be surmountable if there is a national commitment to make major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and oil use.

Government policy actions will be necessary to meet the goals, the committee said, possibly combining several strategies: high and increasing fuel economy standards, more stringent than the 2025 standards; higher petroleum taxes; subsidies; or "feebates," an approximately revenue-neutral program wherein owners of less-efficient vehicles pay a fee and owners of more efficient vehicles earn a rebate. Public information campaigns will play a key role, so that consumers have an understanding of new fuels and powertrains.

It is essential that policies promoting particular technologies to the public are not introduced before these new fuels and vehicle technologies are close to market readiness and consumer behavior toward them is well-understood. The report identifies clear tipping points at which consumers will transition to new vehicle technologies en masse. If policies are insufficient to overcome the early cost differentials, then the transition to such technologies will not occur. Technologies should only be forced into the market when their benefits justify the costs.

Strong government intervention would need the support of lawmakers and the American public to succeed. However, if we aren't ready to make that commitment as a nation, there are still opportunities to come close to the 2050 goals, the report says. For example, traditional internal combustion engine vehicles could become much more efficient by reducing work the engine must perform -- lowering vehicle weight, aerodynamic resistance, rolling resistance, and accessories -- plus improving the efficiency of the internal combustion engine powertrain. Making conventional vehicles more efficient is, up to a point, the most economical and easiest-to-implement approach to saving fuel and lowering emissions. While this alone will not meet the 2050 goals, it would definitely be a good start. -- Lorin Hancock

Transitions to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels. Committee on Transitions to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels, Board on Energy and Environmental Systems, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2013, 170 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-26852-3; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $59.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study was chaired by Douglas Chapin, principal of MPR Associates Inc., Alexandria, Va. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

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Copyright 2013 by the National Academy of Sciences