A 50 MPG Car May Be in Your Future No Matter What Trump Does

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The 2016 Chevrolet Bolt electric car has a 200-mile range. (Woodkern)

California is forging ahead with strict climate change goals, despite the Trump Administration’s efforts to ease regulations on many fronts. One area of possible conflict is on auto emissions standards.

The state Air Resources Board recently voted to reaffirm California’s emissions standards for vehicles sold between 2022 and 2025. Right now, federal and state standards are the same, but President Trump last month ordered a review of the federal standards, telling automakers in Detroit he wants to loosen regulations.

KQED’s Brian Watt spoke with Ron Cogan, president of the Green Car Institute in San Luis Obispo, for his perspective on the issue. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.

Watt: These standards would mean an average of about 54 miles per gallon across all vehicle types. What does that mean the auto industry needs to do?

Cogan: Automakers have to do a lot. That's a very, very high number for fuel efficiency. It's not that it can't be achieved, it's just going to cost a lot of money to get there and a lot of R&D.


Watt: You say it’s a lot. But the auto industry has had five years to prepare for these standards. They still don’t go into effect for another five years. So what is so hard about doing this for the industry?

Cogan: Cars, for the longest time, were getting 15 miles a gallon, 20 miles a gallon. Then we started seeing cars over 30 miles a gallon. You have hybrids that can get 50 miles a gallon. But most cars cannot. To get to that point, it takes a lot of advanced technology; a lot of advanced materials. So when you say they have five years to do it, well that may be, but in five years, to do that is going to absolutely require a lot of electrification, plug in hybrids and battery electric cars and so on. But the cost is significant and that's the core issue.

Ron Cogan
Ron Cogan

You have to convince buyers to spend $800 to $1200 more for a vehicle purchase with the thought they are going to save money in the long run. And that's not an easy path. So it's easy to point that out. It is not so easy to change consumer behaviors and encourage them to buy those fuel efficient cars at a much greater cost.

Watt: Last week at the state air board hearing, Steve Douglas with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers testified. He's the group's senior director of energy and environment. He said consumers aren't buying enough electric cars for them to meet the standards [and sales would have to triple to meet the regulations]. So you mention that it’s tough to convince a consumer to spend $800 to $1,200 per car. But why aren’t consumers more interested in electric cars, period?

Cogan: A battery electric car is quite expensive to make. Batteries are very expensive. It's the same issue electric cars had in the 90s. They've come a long way since then. And now we have plug-in hybrids that give you some battery range. We have battery electric cars that can give you 80 or 110 miles. The Chevy Bolt EV can give you 238 miles. Those are all good moves. But cars—electric cars—are more expensive than conventional cars. And many of them have limited driving ranges. So when it's said that not that many are stepping up compared to conventional vehicles, absolutely true. Because at this point, electric vehicles don't fit the needs of everyone.

If someone needs a car for commuting, and they have an electric car that gives them an 80 mile range, they may not feel comfortable with their daily commute in that car. Some may, if they're only commuting 20 miles—it's perfect for them. But for so many others, they don't want to have a car so limited, which is again why plug-in hybrids are so important. You drive maybe 15, 30 miles on electric power and then you're driving a hybrid after that with no limit.

Watt: Is it possible that vehicles could become cleaner without these regulations?

Cogan: We have always said that even though we understand the automakers and they have to make a profit, I still feel you have to keep automakers' feet to the fire.

In the absence of that, research and development will slow in that area. Automakers will, as a matter of course, look for vehicles that deliver a profit. But they also have to be competitive, which means fuel efficiency is important to a lot of buyers. They will have to continue to make better and better vehicles, that get higher and higher fuel efficiency.

Without requirements, though, the pace will slow. So, we will eventually get there, but the federal regulations and the state regulations are driving this on a faster timeline.

Ron Cogan is president of the Green Car Institute, which educates consumers, the media and the industry on the benefits of environmentally conscious vehicles and technologies.