What’s Lighting Up the Web

President Obama’s July 29th announcement of a new 54.5 mpg fuel efficiency standard resulted in considerable buzz throughout the web. Political and environmental blogs, in particular, hosted vibrant debates about the standards, their effect on the automobile industry, and their ability to make a real impact on U.S. dependence on oil.

Below is a sampling from the broader online conversation.

“Of course, meeting that standard means that cars and light trucks will have to be lighter weight and thus more dangerous in accidents. If our goal is energy independence, there are so many better ways to achieve that goal, such as drilling for oil in places where it is now forbidden.” – Commenter, Fox News Facebook Page

“These phony unattainable mileage numbers will be the death of the American car companies. They will be forced to manufacture tiny cars that no one wants to buy so the current fleet will be kept around forever just like in Cuba. No one will win…” – Commenter, TheHill.com

“The industry seems to forget, or be blind to what has already been done. I used to own a 1958 BMW Isetta. Seated 2, weighed about 750 pounds, and could manage about 50mpg with ancient design gas engine. Made with steel tubing and body shell. Certainly not an ideal car, but it was done with (now) 50 year old technology. A more modern design, built of aluminum or carbon fiber, and with modern engine/hybrid technology should easily manage 100 mpg at a steady speed." – Commenter, RMI Outlet

"While it sounds great that car manufacturers have finally agreed that the MPG should be 54.5, but I don’t think they need as much time as they are given to get those results since hybrids today (when driven properly) gets that and better.” – Commenter, Inhabitat.com

The above quotes are just a few examples that illustrate how polarized the response has been since the President’s announcement. Some, for example, question the safety of more efficient autos, and generally perceive that higher standards will adversely affect the automobile industry. Many of those in the camp that favor higher standards express disappointment that the 54.5 mpg standard is far lower than what is possible. Others applaud the cooperation between the White House and automakers to take a concrete step toward reducing America’s oil dependence, and advancing more efficient cars.

Where does RMI stand?

In response to comments on Kelly Vaughn’s post, ‘Taking Fuel Economy Further,’ RMI Transportation Consultant Greg Rucks stated, “fuel efficiency, at least on the scale of current CAFE standards, need not be a high-tech solution or drive additional cost.”

In a recent Outlet post, RMI analyst, Jesse Morris, addressed safety concerns over lightweighting—a key lever for achieving dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency:

“The perception that weight is necessary for vehicle safety initially stemmed from studies conducted over the past several decades by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that determined making autos 100 pounds lighter would kill an extra 400–1,300 Americans a year. This, combined with consumer demand for SUVs, created a kind of “mass arms race” where, in the name of safety, you drive an Expedition, your neighbor drives a Hummer, and the guy down the street drives a tank.”

Overall, debating the need for—or the effectiveness of—a 54.5 mpg standard, assumes that policy is the only driver for dramatically more efficient autos. While effective, targeted policies can help, this transition will ultimately be driven by automakers who stand to gain a competitive edge by delivering efficient, high performing and safe cars.