Technologies that reduce automotive fuel consumption are becoming a reality.
In March 2007, David Greene—an Oak Ridge National Laboratory corporate fellow, transportation analyst and manager of the web site www. fueleconomy.gov—was invited to address a congressional committee for the second time in two months. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, Greene outlined both the challenges of and opportunities for reducing America's fuel consumption through breakthrough technologies. His message was a mixture of concern and hope.
"America's oil dependence costs our economy hundreds of billions of dollars each year and undermines our national security," he told the senators. "The threat to the global environment from humaninduced climate change fed by increasing emissions of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels becomes clearer with each passing day. With demand for mobility growing rapidly around the world, sustainable sources of energy for growing mobility demands must be found."
Greene testified that in 1975 Congress for the first time established fuel economy standards in response to the OPEC oil embargo, generating a 50% increase in fuel economy over the next 20 years. Although those initial steps saved American consumers more than 50 billion gallons of gasoline annually, in the long term this approach failed to reduce both fuel consumption and the corresponding need for more imported oil.
More than three decades since the first fuel economy standards were established, policymakers find themselves in an even more complicated political context. The economic and security aspects of fuel consumption are joined by growing concerns about the impact of automobile emissions on climate change. According to Greene, the good news is that the issue can be addressed by gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles and cars with clean diesel engines—technologies considered unproven five years ago—that are beginning to penetrate the market. "Today there are a dozen hybrid models to choose from and clean diesels will soon be available," said Greene. He told the senators that fuel economy for passenger vehicles and lightweight trucks can be raised 30% to 50% by 2017 using proven technologies without reducing the size or power of the vehicles.
Whether Congress chooses to raise fuel economy standards is a policy issue appropriately beyond the purview of researchers. Meanwhile, as the political debate continues, researchers in Oak Ridge are rapidly moving forward in pursuit of energy-efficient automotive technologies that offer options and, one hopes, lasting solutions to one of America's great scientific challenges of the 21st century.—Carolyn Krause
Web site provided by Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Communications and External Relations