One Very Concerned Scientist

An interview with David Friedman, a specialist on clean vehicles, on what we could be doing to drive smarter

It's no mystery that America has a fuel habit it just can't kick. Our country produces less than 3% of the world's oil, yet we consume roughly 25% of global output, according to the Energy Information Administration. And as gasoline prices continue to rise, it's clear that the economic, political, and environmental effects of this addiction will only intensify.

David Friedman, research director of the Clean Vehicles Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., says fuel economy is stuck 20 years in the past. Fuel economy is the amount of fuel required to move a vehicle over a given distance, while fuel efficiency is the proportion of energy released by fuel combustion that is converted into useful energy. Although the fuel efficiency of petroleum engines has improved markedly in recent decades, this is not true of fuel economy of cars, as Americans tend to buy bigger, faster, and heavier cars.

Although automakers have the technology to improve fuel economy, Friedman says they are dragging their heels on getting it off the shelf and into their products. In his current work with UCS, he lobbies politicians and auto manufacturers to bring the fuel economy of our cars and trucks into the present. He received his doctorate in transportation technology and policy from the University of California at Davis and has written more than 20 papers on developments in convention, fuel cell, and hybrid electric vehicles.

Friedman recently spoke with's Christina Pryor about what the government, car companies, and consumers can and should do to curb our addiction to oil. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Hybrid powertrains are finally making the jump into vehicle classes beyond small sedans. Do you think this is a sign that hybrids will become a more important part of the U.S. car market?

There's no reason why there shouldn't be a hybrid in every class of car on the market. You name it, you can hybridize it. That is one of the benefits and the promise of hybrid technology. The technology is there to allow any vehicle to go as far on a gallon of gasoline with the same speed, the same acceleration, and the same or even better safety than the car or truck you're driving today.

Ford recently said it was "focusing" on technologies besides hybrids, effectively stepping back from their previous gas-electric commitment. What do you think the impact of this decision is likely to be?

Basically, I think Ford (F) is in a position of trying to find ways to maximize their quarterly returns instead of keeping an eye on their business 5 to 10 years down the road. They replaced an investment in long-term profitability with short-term "green-washing" in the form of flexible fuel vehicles.

Ethanol fuel has been getting a lot of attention recently. What part do you see ethanol playing going forward?

It's a fuel with long-term promise, not short-term gains. That doesn't mean we should ignore it the same way we shouldn't ignore hydrogen or renewable energy. We can make more ethanol from corn but it has limited benefits and should be looked at as a very important transitional technology on the way to cellulosic ethanol.

And I think it's just as important to put ethanol in context. It has real promise but it's not a silver bullet. The danger is of our country and companies jumping from one high-tech silver bullet to another. In the 1990s it was all about battery electric vehicles, then in the late '90s and early this century, fuel cell vehicles. Now it's ethanol. As long as we keep shifting our focus we're not going to get anything done. What we need really is a comprehensive energy policy. I know that's an oxymoron in Washington but it's the only way we'll tackle our addiction to oil and global warming pollution.

Clean diesel fuel is finally arriving stateside this year. What about diesel's part?

It's a mixture of enthusiasm and a little frustration over marketing. It's cleaner diesel but I challenge anyone to call anything that's coming out of the tailpipe of any car these days "clean" unless it's an electric car or fuel cell vehicle, and, of course, those vehicles depend on how you make the fuel. There are still problems with pollution in making the fuel so they're not necessarily cleaner. But by the end of this decade I think we're going to see cleaner diesel vehicles that provide renewable fuel economy benefits and are as clean as the average gas vehicle and that's exciting because we need every tool we can get.

What is the single most effective step for cutting our dependence on oil?

Over the next 20 years the single biggest thing we can do to cut our dependence on oil is to cut the amount of fuels we use for our cars and trucks. If we took an aggressive path on fuel economy we could slow or even stop growth in gas demand and that would give us the time and space we need to develop high-volume alternatives to gasoline because they're not around the corner yet. Just like preparing for retirement we need a balanced portfolio of energy investments.

The fuel economy of today's cars and trucks in the U.S., to put it simply, is a disgrace. The fuel economy in 2006 is projected to be lower than it was in 1986 and in fact, the fuel economy in 2006 is projected to be the same that it was in 2005. Despite two major hurricanes, high gas prices, and turbulence in the Middle East and throughout the world in the nations that supply our oil. That has to change if we're going to have any hope of cutting our addiction to oil. There's a whole suite of conventional technologies that can make the regular cars we drive get higher fuel economy, and more advanced technology like hybrids that can go even further.

What piece of conceptual or developmental technology have you seen that most excites or impresses you?

It's the simple stuff. The system that can shut off an engine when you're at a stoplight or in traffic and turn it on before your foot goes from the brake to the gas. We waste 10% to 15% of our fuel going nowhere and a simple technology like that can get more miles to the gallon. Direct injection gas engines. High-strength materials like steel and aluminum that are safer than today's conventional steel and can help save fuel. Better tires. Better transmissions. There's just a huge list of what some might call boring technology that according to data from the National Academies of Science could take a mix of cars and trucks from 24 miles a gallon to 37 miles a gallon without hybrids. That excites me because it is so simple and pays for itself in a couple of years.

Why do you think auto manufacturers remain reluctant to address improved fuel economy?

There are two main reasons. They are focusing on quarterly profits and avoiding investments in their future. Ford is losing money. Well, one way to improve the quarterly balance sheet is to avoid putting money in innovation. That's what Ford is doing by backing away from their hybrid commitment. But as I think every company in America knows, it's investment in technology, in your workforce, in your company that leads to long-term prosperity. They still think of hybrids as a bad business decision despite the fact the world has changed.

The second issue is culture. You see it at Ford where [Chairman and Chief Executive] Bill Ford is struggling to change the direction of his company and being thwarted by the culture of that company because the culture has convinced itself that the '90s are coming back despite rising oil demand from India and China, despite turmoil in the Middle East, that somehow high oil prices are only temporary, and the national security concerns will fade away, that they can simply keep doing things the way they have done over the past 20 years. It's that type of attitude that got the Big Three in trouble in the '70s and early '80s in the last major gas crises. They thought the world was going to stay the same, and it changed, and they didn't have the products they needed to compete.

President Bush recently called for a reform of fuel economy standards for sport-utility vehicles, minivans, and some pickups by 10%, which would save less than a month's worth of gasoline per year over the next two decades. What really needs to happen on the government's part to ease our oil addiction?

Political will. I think there are some people who get it, like Congressmen Boller and Markey, who have over 90 co-sponsors on their fuel economy bill in the House. In the Senate, there are two fuel economy approaches, one by Senator Feinstein with 11 co-sponsors and one by Senator Obama with eight. While there are some leaders in the trenches, there is a leadership vacuum at the top. President Bush did raise fuel economy standards, but by so little that's its going to be swamped by loopholes in existing law through the end of the decade.

What do consumers need to step up and do?

Maintain your car. Pump up the tires, clean the air filer, go for regular maintenance. A good running car is a high fuel economy car but, of course, you are limited by what auto manufacturers offer in the first place.

Avoid hard acceleration. Stick to the speed limit. It will save your life and save gasoline. If you can, take transit. Walk, bike, or carpool. Finally, the biggest way to save money at the pump—contact your members of Congress and demand they find a way to provide higher fuel economy cars and trucks because at the end of the day, that's what it's going to take.
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