State of the Planet

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The Less Thirsty Cars of the Future

The Toyota Prius has become a symbol of more efficient passenger cars, but fuel efficient technology is poised to expand. 2005. Photo by Chris 73 via WikiCommons

America is quite possibly the very epicenter of car culture. If it isn’t, then America’s car culture is certainly bigger and flashier than anyone else’s. From the chromed and finned cruisers of the 1950s, to the pre-embargo behemoths of the 70s, to the monstrous pickups and SUVs of the past few years, freedom-sized vehicles have been a ubiquitous feature of our society since Henry Ford mastered the art of mass production. But although Americans have typically returned to buying inefficient cars when economic downturns swing back upward, President Barack Obama planted the seeds of change last week when he announced an agreement reached with 13 auto makers calling for new cars and light trucks to achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

That’s good news not only for Americans—who will save $80 billion by 2030—but also for the rest of the world. Aside from its cost, U.S. dependence upon cars has a profound impact on the global environment. Per capita, Americans are by far the world’s most prolific carbon emitters, so cutting down on fuel consumption will have huge implications for air quality, climate, and, if somewhat circuitously, water quality and supply. A joint study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that tighter efficiency standards will, as proposed, lead to a 1.5 million barrel per day reduction in oil consumption by 2030, almost offsetting the current 1.7 million barrels of oil per day imported from the Persian Gulf. Carbon dioxide emissions would also be reduced from 314 grams per mile to 163 after the cuts take effect.

President Barack Obama. 2009. Photo courtesy Executive Office of the President

Aside from economic, air pollution, and water quality impacts, increased fuel economy will also have an impact on water consumption. It takes water to produce anything you can think of, whether it’s the gallon of water needed to generate a quarter pound hamburger, the 13 gallons used to create a gallon of paint, or the 1,360 gallons that go into making a ton of cement. The same holds true for motor vehicles. Since more efficient cars will ostensibly be smaller and lighter, they will also take less material, and less water, during the manufacturing process. Every step of the automobile’s life involves water consumption. Every pound of plastic produced uses about 24 gallons of water. Refiners need nearly 1,900 gallons of water to process one barrel of crude oil. It takes 62,600 gallons of water to produce a ton of steel (most cars, even light ones, are more than a ton’s worth of various materials). While a vehicle’s average water footprint is about 39,000 gallons, a smaller car will have less of an impact on water supply than a larger one.

If enormous cars are engrained in American culture, so too is the very practical tendency to buy smaller ones when oil prices go up. But Detroit has a knack for marketing big, powerful machines, and has since before World War II. When the Allies captured Sicily in 1943, my great grandfather was one of the Italian generals left behind to handle the surrender. My grandfather recalls his family’s surprise at the size of the car the U.S. Army sent to collect his father for a brief stint as a POW. In a country where a 1.5-liter four-cylinder Fiat was considered a large car, the commodious eight-cylinder (more than 5.2 liters!) Buick must have seemed outlandish to them. The disparity continues today. Although plenty of the tiny, efficient econoboxes zipping around Europe’streets and highways are made by Ford and Chevy, those models simply aren’t marketed in the States.

There aren’t many people who better embody America’s lust for thirsty vehicles like former California Governor Arnold Scwarzenegger, who used to own eight Hummers. He was the person responsible for the military vehicles entering civilian production in 1992, but even the Governator had to concede that excessive fuel consumption and carbon emissions has massive impacts upon the economy and the environment, so he sold his fleet in 2006. But he also took action on the regulatory front. Nearly a decade ago, he got on board with tighter statewide fuel economy standards to help clean the air and lessen California’s dependence upon foreign oil. Although it may have been unintentional, his action also had an impact on his state’s beleaguered water supply. California’s standards served as a model for the new federal standards. By 2007, he was going toe to toe with the EPA over who had the last say over vehicle emissions requirements. Other states voluntarily followed suit until there were 13 states with California’s more stringent standards.

An H2 Hummer at a strip mall parking lot in Waldorf, Md. Originally conceived as an all-purpose military vehicle, the Hummer has come to epitomize consumer excess. 2009. Photo by IFCAR via WikiCommons

President Obama’s new plan aims to increase fuel economy markedly from the status quo, but the 54.5 mpg label is a little misleading. The reporting requirements laid out by the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 give raw fuel economy estimates. In other words, things like air conditioning and city driving are not taken into consideration. “EPA has the authority to print a label that’s more indicative of real driving conditions,” said NRDC transportation program director Roland Hwang, adding that although a 2011 Toyota Prius is certified at 70 mpg, it’s combined EPA mileage estimate is 50 mpg. “The window sticker average [for all vehicles] will be 40 mpg; still much higher than the current 22.5 mpg.”

In partnership with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, EPA already instituted tighter standards calling for an increase in the average fuel economy of all U.S.-manufactured vehicles to 35.5 mpg by 2016. The new plan still faces a 45-day public comment period before it becomes a rule. If the plan gains final approval, it will go into effect in 2017, after the 35.5 mpg rule initiated in 2009 covering the 2012-2016 times period expires. For decades, automakers have resisted efficiency upgrades, claiming the technology would hurt business and cost jobs. But aside from the environmental benefits brought about by cleaner cars, United Auto Workers projects that the need for better technology will create 150,000 auto industry jobs over the next few decades.

Climate change has already begun to rear its ugly head, causing severe weather and sea level rise, and impacting water supply in some of the driest, most populous places in the world. What remains to be seen is how dedicated America’s auto industry is to making some kind of a dent in carbon pollution, hopefully staving off catastrophe. Traditional marketing leads consumers to believe that owning a small car is an effete abandonment of American prowess, but as the economic slump and strange weather continue, that seems to be changing. Why drive a 15 mpg SUV when you can drive a 35 mpg Toyota station wagon? The latter may not look as cool according to our current perceptions of what is socially acceptable, but neither does an extreme water shortage in densely populated Southern California, nor does severe summer and winter weather in the Mid-Atlantic. Hwang said that the auto industry has to hold up their end of the bargain under the President’s new requirements, but we can all pitch in by making more responsible choices. A lot of people around the world still buy into American cool. Knowing what we know now, we can accomplish a lot by adopting a new, more efficient version of cool.

At nearly 19 feet long, the 1959 Cadillac weighed more than 5,000 pounds. Fuel economy was 8-14 mpg. 2007. Photo by anolden via WikiCommons

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