Special Coverage

SAE World Congress

DETROIT – Some sticks, a few carrots, a wide-ranging point of view and a little guts.

Panelists in a session on energy policy at the SAE World Congress here don’t agree on everything, but there appears to be consensus on the need for those few fundamentals, if America is going to wean itself off oil dependency and produce more environmentally friendly vehicles.

The sticks, the experts say, already are partially in place in the form of tougher fuel-economy standards that mature in 2016.

But both Bob Holycross, manager-environment, energy planning and compliance for Ford Motor Co., and Tom Stricker, Washington director-environmental technology and regulatory affairs for Toyota Motor Corp., say they are concerned the fragile alliance formed between the federal government and states such as California that led to the new national fuel-economy regulations could break down beyond 2016.

“We have some concerns the two sides could pull further apart,” Stricker says. “We’re encouraging the state and national governments to continue to work together beyond 2016. They share climate goals, so a single national framework (on fuel economy) would make a lot of sense.”

“The priority has to be to assure the framework remains in place for 2017 and beyond,” Holycross agrees.

But in addition to fuel-economy standards, the government needs to adopt other measures to discourage fuel consumption, panelists say. The list could include such steps as higher gasoline taxes, road-use fees and a carbon cap-and-trade policy.

David Friedman, research director-clean vehicles for the Union of Concerned Scientists, also recommends regulations mandating clean fuels and suggests linking future state highway funding to other carbon-reduction initiatives.

He calls for federal dollars to support related initiatives, including $12 billion to back advanced vehicle development (including $5 billion-$10 billion aimed at electric vehicles), $8 billion for biofuels research and $20 billion to provide consumers with alternative transportation options.

He says that $40 billion in cost could be more than paid for by carbon cap-and-trade schemes and highway-usage fees.

In addition to research funding, the panelists say policy makers should provide carrots in the form of tax breaks on purchases of electrified and other advanced-technology vehicles, some of which is available already.

Unless the Washington takes tough fiscal measures to drive consumers toward more fuel-efficient vehicles and limit the number of miles they travel annually, the movement to alternative-powered vehicles will stall out, panelists contend.

“Price signals are critical to this,” says Michael Webber, co-director of the University of Texas Clean Energy Incubator. He says history shows if gasoline remains inexpensive, people feel free to drive their more fuel-efficient vehicles greater distances.

Stricker agrees. “Some sort of incentive – disincentive or incentive – is helpful in getting consumers to change their behavior.”

Panelists also caution a more holistic view to policy making is needed.

Webber points out the effect a government push toward alternative fuels and electric vehicles could have on the world’s already dwindling fresh-water supply.

Electricity generation requires two to three times the amount of water needed to produce gasoline, he says, while natural gas requires one to 24 times. Hydrogen fuel creation is one to 500 times as water-needy, while biofuels can multiply water use by up to 1,000.

Webber says a national water-quantity policy is needed and should be factored into any future U.S. energy policy.

“Maybe we need to look at gallons of water per mile,” Webber suggests.

Others agree a more cohesive policy approach is critical.

Stricker points to government plans to increase renewable-fuels use “with no consideration of what vehicles will use these fuels,” as well as the push to mandate electric and fuel-cell vehicles, with “no clear understanding of where the electricity or hydrogen is going to come from.”

In general, government officials will need to step up to the plate, panelists say.

“The real question comes down to the will to change the status quo,” Holycross says. “There’s going to have to be political will.”

dzoia@wardsauto.com