This post also appears in the National Journal Energy & Environment Experts  blog in response to the question: What should drive fuel efficiency?
At a moment when it appears to many that our government can’t do anything right, the current approach  to regulating vehicle fuel economy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is a bright spot.
After decades of failing to tighten corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, and several years when California and other states began to take the matter of setting vehicle GHG standards into their own hands, the federal government finally got its act together. In 2007 Congress enacted the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, tightening CAFE. In 2010, NHTSA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) jointly set GHG and CAFE standards, and California agreed to conform its rules to the federal ones. NHTSA and EPA are hard at work at a second round of standards for light duty vehicles, as well as the first-ever set of similar rules for medium and heavy duty trucks.
We now have the Congress, federal and state regulators, industry and public interest groups aligned on a policy framework that is meeting important national goals of reducing oil dependence and GHG emissions, providing regulatory consistency and certainty to the industry, and creating a climate favorable to investment and innovation.
The auto industry is responding successfully. The plug-in hybrid electric Chevy Volt won the 2011 Motor Trend Car of the Year , 2011 Green Car of the Year , and 2011 North American Car of the Year . It’s also selling well. But PHEVs are just part of the story. The Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra are among the nine vehicles in the U.S. marketplace that get more than 40 miles per gallon. They were also among the 10 top-selling vehicles  last month. Higher sales of fuel-efficient vehicles across the board contributed to strong sales and combined profits of nearly $5.9 billion for the three U.S. automakers in the first quarter of this year.
Higher gasoline prices are heightening consumer interest in these vehicles. But we cannot rely on oil prices alone to drive us to the next generation of vehicles. Oil prices are too volatile to motivate the sustained business investment we need. And the price we pay at the pump doesn’t reflect the true cost of oil to our country. Half of the 2010 U.S. trade deficit  was from oil – that’s $256.9 billion we sent overseas last year alone. The U.S. EPA estimates that the energy security benefit of reducing oil dependence is on the order of $12 per barrel . And gasoline burning inflicts enormous damage on our air quality and climate. For example, the transportation sector is responsible for more than a quarter of U.S. GHG emissions and is a major contributor to smog.
The beauty of the fuel economy and GHG standards is that they are performance based. They set targets based on important public policy goals – i.e., oil savings and GHG reductions – but leave it to industry to find the best way to meet them. They don’t “pick winners.” They should remain the core of our public policy framework for transportation.
But our current set of vehicles and fuels may not be up to the job of meeting our long-term goals. In order to level the playing field with the incumbent technologies that have benefited from nearly a century of infrastructure development and fuel-vehicle optimization, we need to make some public investment to jumpstart alternative vehicles and fuels. This has to be done carefully. We need a savvy, adaptive strategy that ensures that any subsidies are only temporary, leverages public investment with private dollars, spawns experiments and learns from them, and rewards environmental and efficiency performance.
It is not clear whether hydrogen, natural gas, electricity, or biofuels are the long-term solution to our energy and environmental challenges. But we need to continue to keep the pressure on all of them through performance-based standards, research them all, subsidize limited deployment to see how they perform in the real world, and leave it to industry and consumers to determine their ultimate success in the marketplace.
Judi Greenwald is Vice President for Innovative Solutions