Traverse City, Mich. — Automakers looking for some relief from the U.S. federal target of 54.5 mpg fleet average by 2025 may not get it.
During a speech Aug. 2 at the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Chris Grundler, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, made it clear the agency is in no mood to move backwards.
EPA is already looking beyond 2025 and believes dangerous climate changes will occur if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced 80 percent by 2050 from today's levels.
“We are in the beginning stages of tackling one of the most challenging issues of our time, which is climate change.” Grundler said. “This is a global environmental problem. It will require every country and every economic sector to take meaningful action.”
That and other remarks Grundler made in his presentation at the industry event indicate the agency isn't inclined to flex on the targeted 54.5 mpg fleet average fuel economy standard that automakers would have to meet by 2025.
Some in the auto industry had been hoping for a break.
A final decision is due no later than April 1, 2018, in the agency's mid-term review. Grundler said EPA has three choices in determining the final standard for fuel economy standards for the years 2022- 2025: Standards will remain the same, become less stringent, or become even more stringent.
Citing EPA's technical assessment report (TAR) issued last month that addresses progress being made by automakers to improve fuel economy, Grundler said automakers are ahead of the agency's estimates on reducing CO2 levels and improving fuel economy.
He said the agency has invested record amounts of time and resources in creating the information EPA will use to make its final decision.
“This has been one of EPA's highest priorities,” Grundler said. “We have put more people and more dollars and more test time in more [engine test] cell time in this project than we did in establishing the original standards.”
EPA has also been working with automakers and suppliers globally on the rules.
Since the original 2025 targets were set in 2012, the mix of cars versus trucks sold has shifted from nearly 50-50 to closer to 70-30 in favor of trucks, mostly due to cheaper gasoline.
But those heavier and less fuel efficient vehicles could be a major factor in EPA's decision to stand by the 54.5 mpg target.
Weight — and the rising CAFE standard — has been a major driver for plastics parts makers seeking a way to get more products into U.S.-sold vehicles.
Plastics suppliers attending the seminars said whether or not EPA ultimately softens its fuel economy standards, they see continuing opportunities for plastics in vehicle design and continuing interest from the automotive industry in dropping weight and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
“One of the great advancements that the auto industry has now is the ability to reach those fleet standards by using electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids,” said Rob Simon, vice president of strategy at Continental Structural Plastics of Troy, Mich. “It's the adoption and proliferation of those technologies into the mainstream fleet that is creating this sort of challenge, because of the range. No one wants to go somewhere and run out of electricity. What we know is that by pulling weight out of the vehicle you can actually extend the range, and so that's one other way that we can actually help that particular technology advance.”
CSP is throwing its weight behind carbon fiber-reinforced plastics and other composites, which it sees as critical to future lightweighting efforts.
“We believe that the efficiencies and the advancements have basically run their course,” he said. “There's not a whole lot more you can do with transmission speeds, with horsepower-per-liter. [So] what's the next step to bringing these vehicles to fuel economy standards? That's where we step in; we take weight out of the vehicle and that adds efficiencies on the fuel economy side.”
Jürgen Peters, president of Röchling Automotive North America — part of Röchling Group of Mannheim, Germany — said he also does not see lightweighting losing importance.
“With all the achievements as an industry we have established, I think sometimes it feels like we are just at the beginning for the next decades ahead,” he said. “And I think plastic materials [are] the material of the future.
“[Fuel economy regulations] drove a lot of innovation already in the industry,” he continued. “If we didn't have these type of regulations, we probably would be not as good as we are today as an industry. I see that this will continue, and I am confident the industry will come up with solutions.”
EPA's Grundler said the agency believes the auto industry can continue making progress with a wide array of technologies, mostly done through better gasoline engine techs.
“When we look at sales today and what is being sold, by the time 2016 is over nearly 20 percent of vehicles sold today — 2.5 million vehicles — will meet 2020 standards. That's real progress. And we think industry is well positioned while reaching significantly new levels of environmental performance.”
Grundler batted down the notion that greater sales of trucks and SUVs will make it impossible for automakers to meet fuel economy standards.
“This policy was deliberately designed to protect consumer choice. If the consumer choice is changing the standards adjust accordingly. It's not a compliance problem. The standards are based on what an automaker chooses to build,” he said.