Congress’ Carbon for Safety Charade

Adaptive cruise control and electric motors have just one thing in common: they’re both exciting technologies found in automobiles. Adaptive cruise control automatically maintains a safe distance from the car in front and activates the brakes if necessary to prevent a collision. Electric vehicles, on the other hand, reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted on our nations’ highways. One is a safety measure, the other environmental. It’s pretty straightforward. So why are some congressional representatives suggesting we trade one for the other?

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on October 21st on a bill that, among other things, would let automakers get fuel economy credits in exchange for including new safety technologies. Along with adaptive cruise control, a number of advanced safety technologies are being proposed, including lane departure warning, driver attention monitors, left-turn assist, among others. There is no hard science or data behind any of these technologies’ contributions to reduced pollution. There is no basis for a tradeoff. It’s simply a backdoor attempt to lower fuel economy standards. Even worse, it will undermine one of the government’s biggest environmental success stories of the past decade.

The fuel economy and emissions standards put in place in 2012 by my team at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have had a huge positive impact. In 2014, The Economist magazine ranked them the sixth most effective global effort to limit greenhouse gases. Annually, they eliminate 2 billion tons of CO2 from being released into the air. They are the primary reason that gasoline consumption in the United States is still below peak levels –even as the GDP has grown nearly 8% since 2012 and gas prices have fallen. The standards have also spurred technological innovation. Today there are more than 76 different models available to American consumers with alternative propulsion technologies. They have put the nation on the path to a fleet average of 54.5 mpg in 2025. This is double the average mpg of cars and trucks in 2010. In short, these standards are a critical part of federal efforts to cut oil use and fight climate change.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about these ambitious standards is that they were agreed to by the automakers before they became regulations. This is in large part because of our collaborative approach. We asked for significant input from automakers on the new rules. We accepted some of their proposals and dismissed others. Among the ones we rejected were requests very much like the measures that are now under discussion in the House. We didn’t deny the automakers’ request to get fuel economy credits in exchange for new safety technologies, out of hand. We asked them for scientific data that clearly demonstrated that there was a linkage between the two. There was simply no real world data that showed that these safety features reduce fuel consumption or pollution.

Today, the same safety technologies still do not meet the criteria. There is no science that suggests that any of these technologies reduces fuel consumption or pollution. Instead, the House bill is arbitrary, unscientific and removes the incentives for the automakers that have led to so many advances in efficiency. This legislation would lead to higher levels of pollution–and higher prices for drivers to fill their gas tank. It would undercut public health and the environment protection. It would cancel out some of the benefits we’ve seen from the vehicle standards. It would burn through hundreds of millions of additional barrels of oil in coming years. And it’s totally unnecessary.

Automakers have made impressive progress in meeting the challenge of building more efficient cars. Many of the best-selling cars offer features years ahead of the targets we set. But that didn’t happen on its own. These standards aren’t some number pulled out of thin air. They were successful because we used science, engineering and an understanding of current auto technology to set policies that showed automakers the way forward.

Let’s be clear: there’s no reason that we can’t have innovation in both fuel economy and safety. Pretending that there’s some conflict between them–that we must trade one for the other–is dishonest. We don’t have to choose: we can protect lives, reduce emissions, save money, and reduce accidents. Mark Rosekind, the head of NHTSA, recently noted that the industry is already adopting advanced safety technologies and needs no incentives to do so. “Save lives, prevent injuries – that should be the highest incentive that anybody needs to add advanced technologies,” Rosekind said.

The future of automobiles is exciting. Let’s get there the right way.

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