AUTOLINE ON AUTOBLOG: Big Problems with California’s CO2 Standard

January 31st, 2009 at 10:05am

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Earlier this week President Obama instructed the EPA to determine whether it should grant California a waiver to set its own CO2 standards for cars. It’s a hugely controversial issue, and one that’s fraught with major problems for the auto industry.First off, cars and trucks account for only 18% of total CO2 emissions in the United States. Yet it’s the automotive industry that’s in the cross-hairs, and California’s rules are designed to “hold the automaker’s feet to the fire.” But even if it eliminated all automotive CO2, that still leaves 80% of other man-made sources untouched.

Besides, California’s standard will merely bring the federal standard forward by four years. What’s the big rush? Even more importantly, California only accounts for 1% of global CO2 emissions. So is it really fixing anything? And above all else, whatever reduction the state achieves will be immediately replenished by CO2 and other green house gasses blowing in from India, China and other points in Asia.

You can’t blame the state for trying, but you can blame it for trying something that’s unworkable. California set a CO2 standard that requires a fleet average of 35 mpg by 2016. But that translates into an average of roughly 43 mpg for cars and 26 mpg for trucks. By 2020 cars will have to average about 49 mpg, trucks will have to average 33 mpg.

This is California dreaming! Right now only one car can meet that 43 mpg standard and that’s the Toyota Prius. Even the Honda Civic hybrid falls short. Not one truck even comes close to the standard. And remember, that standard is what the entire fleet has to average.

So you’re telling me the entire fleet will be completely retooled to meet that standard by 2016? In two design cycles? I’m telling you it ain’t gonna happen. It’s not a question of foot-dragging or a lack of technology, or even a question of money. It simply is not physically possible to change the fleet over in that time frame. Even meeting the federal CAFE standard by 2020 will be a stretch.

Detroit isn’t the only one fighting this, by the way. Toyota, Honda and Nissan are opposed to the California standard. That’s telling. Those companies already meet stricter CO2 standards in Europe and Japan. But fuel prices, driving habits and customer requirements are far different in the USA and not even the big Japanese car companies see how they can meet the California standard by the 2016 deadline.

You’d hear more squawking from the Europeans except that they’re exempt. Any automaker selling fewer than 60,000 vehicles in the state doesn’t have to meet the standard, even though this gives giant corporations like the VW Group, the BMW Group and Daimler a free ride.

Technology is riding to the rescue, but it takes time to ramp it up. Electric cars and plug-ins will help immensely, but they’re not going to be available in large numbers by 2016. Diesels are unlikely to sell well as long as diesel fuel is priced above gasoline. CNG has never caught on, despite big subsidies from the state. That means automakers will have to severely limit what they can sell in California and in the other states that plan to adopt its CO2 standard. (As of this writing: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and Washington.)

Automakers will be forced to restrict their California fleet to vehicles that can meet those numbers. Yes, they will be able to allot a small number of full-size trucks and big cars to sell in the state, but once the law of supply-and-demand kicks in, the price for them will climb steeply. Drivers may find it more attractive to keep the vehicles they have rather than buy new ones, which defeats the effort to reduce CO2. Drivers close enough to the state line may decide it’s easier to buy a new car next door and drive it home. How will that be policed?

Forget about those “Vehicle Locators” that dealers use, if the exact car you want can’t be sold in your state. And pity the auction houses that are going to have to determine if auctioned cars can be legally transferred to the wrong state.

I predict that once consumers learn how limited their choices are, they’re going to hit the roof. Environmentalists beware! You’re setting up the system to generate a big public backlash against CO2 legislation.

Those who want to fight global warming would be better served coming up with a comprehensive national plan that actually works, rather than picking on the car companies to score political points

4 Comments to “AUTOLINE ON AUTOBLOG: Big Problems with California’s CO2 Standard”

  1. Tom Martin Says:

    I remember when car companies complained that it was too expensive to put seat belts in a car. I’m tired of auto companies resisting change.

    California’s standards are doable. For each zero emission car built, companies can sell one car that exceeds CO2 levels by 100%, or three cars that exceed the standard by 33%.

    The California data is understated in the article. Over ten additional states will adopt the California rules. And the 1% figure suggests that California is so small, they don’t need to worry about pollution at all.

    I agree there needs to be increased standards for home and building construction.

    What Detroit needs to do is get serious. Rather than build a 3,300 lbs Mustang with 350 hp engine for 2015, Ford needs to build a 2,700 lbs Mustang with 250 hp. My 1967 289 Mustang only weighed 2,700 lbs.

    Rather than only reducing the weight of the Charger R/T from 4,000 to 3,800, Chrysler needs to build a 3200 lbs Charger. I own a 1999 Nissan Maxima with a V6. It only weighs 3,050 lbs.

    And Detroit needs to build small cars that get 40 to 50 mpg including hybrid and zero emission vehicles. And Detroit needs to build luxury cars that are the size of a 1-series or 3-series BMW. Detroit believes that the 3,900 lbs. Cadillac CTS is a small car.

  2. keith taylor Says:

    I hate to disagree with the comments above but GM doesnt in any shape or form state that the CTS is a small car. Actually they target the 5 series in size and 3 in price. Also if you were to buy your Maxima today it would be more like 3600lbs. In range with most front wheel drive cars from all over the world. The responder should sit in the back of a 3 series or for Gods sake a 1 and tell me how he feels. If some one is in the market for a larger car then they arent going to cut it. I am not anti foreign cars just dont like America Bashing. I own two domestics and two foreign cars each with its own unique flavor. Domestics are not innocent in any shape or form so dont mistake my statements for this, however, exactly how much does a Tundra weigh now any way? Last time I checked no-one builds a car the current size of the Maxima at 3200lbs or less, thats more like a Civic. As I have said before America can and must do better however if anyone in their right minds things that the other car makers can make the quota set by that state they are fooling themselves. Anyway, John you do a bang up job keep up the good work. I guess folks in Cali dont live in houses just their cars.

  3. Tom Martin Says:

    I hate being called for America Bashing. I meant to bash all auto manufacturers. Yes, the current Maxima is over 3600 lbs., and so is an Accord, Mazda 6, Camry, etc. Even the BMW 1 and 3 series weigh too much. The new Nissan 370Z is praised by the press because it stayed the same weight. Everyone expected an increase.

    My point is that U.S. and Foreign Car manufacturers need to make significant changes in their next generation of cars. Staying the same weight, or even dropping 200 lbs. is not good enough.

    My 1999 Maxima GLE is a good car. Yes, it’s a little smaller than the current Maxima, but it’s big enough for most people’s needs. Why can’t Nissan build another 3,000 lbs. Maxima? Why can’t Ford build another 2,700 lbs Mustang?

    My one jab at U.S. manufacturers is that none build a luxury small car. Who in the U.S. builds a B-segment car (size of the Ford Focus) that is viewed as a luxury car? The smallest U.S. luxury car that can I think of is the Cadillac CTS, and I agree it’s not a small car.

  4. Bernard Says:

    Ford can’t build a 2,700 lb Mustang in 2009 because, if it did, it would not be able to add the emissions, safety, comfort, and other features that are not included in the 1967 car you mention. They’re simply not comparable. Neither is a 1999 Maxima with a 2009 Maxima.

    No automaker, domestic or foreign, is trying to make vehicles heavier. They’re simply trying to include all the content demanded by customers and legislated by government in as light a package as possible.