IU researchers urge review of fuel economy standards

  • Feb. 19, 2016

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

By Carol Kugler Researchers at Indiana University believe U.S. policymakers should re-evaluate environmental regulations affecting automakers as gas prices fall and consumers change the types of new vehicles they are purchasing.

Regulations issued by the federal government in 2012 require automakers to meet progressively more stringent fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards beginning in 2017. Those standards were set up before the current decline in gas prices, which has changed several factors that will affect how well the coming regulations work. The IU researchers, all members of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington and Indianapolis, wrote in their report that policymakers should take into account falling gas prices and the increase in truck sales during their midterm review of the regulations.

The report also addresses regulations in California and nine other states that require automakers to increase the number of zero-emission vehicles, which include cars that run on electricity and hydrogen, within those states. The nine other states are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Oregon and Maryland.

"These are studies that look at the effects of these policies," said Sanya Carley, co-author of the report and an associate professor at SPEA in Bloomington. The hope is that the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will "redo their impact analysis," she said.

The report, which was funded through a grant from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, does not come to a conclusion, Carley said. The report is the first phase in a process that invites people to look at the report and then offer their suggestions before a final report is submitted next year.

"What our report is doing is trying to offer suggestions," Carley said. Those include reworking data to include lower gas prices, understanding how consumers weight fuel savings against the higher cost of fuel efficient vehicles, including information on advances in fuel-saving technologies and understanding the consequences of having overlapping federal and state regulations.

"All the forecasts that are out now say that gas prices will stay lower than we predicted and that they will stay lower for the foreseeable future," she said.

If gas prices remain low, consumers may not see a reason to purchase new vehicles that have lower emissions. Also, consumers may not be as attracted to zero-emission vehicles if gas prices are more affordable, Carley said, adding, "I think part of the concern is whether the public wants to buy them (lower or zero-emission vehicles). How do you get the consumer to want to buy them? They may not value fuel efficiency as much as we would like them to."

Also, if new vehicles cost more, there is the chance consumers will keep their older vehicles instead of purchasing a new one. The problem with that, Carley said, is older vehicles are less fuel efficient and more likely to release emissions that contribute to greenhouse gases. That would gum up California's program, which has mandated that by 2025 approximately 15.4 percent of the state's new passenger vehicle fleet needs to be zero-emission. "The only cars that qualify are electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles," which cost more than traditional gasoline vehicles, Carley said.

Carley said the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for vehicles were created by a bipartisan group and were created with the aim of helping the environment and also improving the nation's energy security. Even so, a re-evaluation is needed, she said, adding, "Let's be cognitive of the market realities and constructively think of ways to get to our end goal. ... Let's go into this midterm review with our eyes open."