Is There an Engineer in the House?

The U.S. not only needs better math and science education in public schools, it needs it in Congress and the White House.

Commentary

Is there an engineer in the House, the Senate, anywhere?

I like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I don’t want him designing my next car. Ditto for Sheryl Crow, Bill Maher, The Union of Concerned Scientists and a host of other celebrities, business luminaries and technology gurus whose expertise lies outside automotive.

Yet, this is where the U.S. is headed. As liberals worry about global warming and conservatives wring their hands over energy independence, a flurry of new state and federal legislation is being crafted by Democrats and Republicans that promise profound changes to the type of vehicles we will drive and could cost auto makers more than $100 billion to meet.

Everyone with an opinion gets to influence how the auto industry will address global climate change issues. Everyone, it seems, except those with a working knowledge of what can be technically achieved, and what consumers actually will buy.

The bills are crafted, and then auto makers are invited to comment after the fact and hope for the best.

One key proposal, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA,. would raise fleet-wide average fuel economy for passenger cars and light trucks from 25 mpg (9L 100/km) to 35 mpg (7L 100/km) by 2018. A Bush Admin. proposal aims to increase corporate average fuel economy 4% annually, beginning in September 2009 for passenger cars, resulting in a fleet-wide average of about 34 mpg (6.9L 100/km).

Among the flaws with these plans is their fuel-saving potential is based on the false assumption that consumers won’t drive more or trade up to bigger vehicles if fuel economy improves.

They also falsely assume the technology to achieve dramatic leaps in efficiency is inexpensive.

It’s not.

“We have the technology to get 25% to 30% fuel economy improvements across the board, no question about it,” GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said recently at the Global Automotive Conference in Louisville, KY.

But Lutz cautioned that “there’s a huge difference between having the technology and being able to apply that technology commercially in a way that won’t totally disrupt the market.”

He also suggested the Bush Admin. plan was recommended by a group of esteemed business and military leaders who have no automotive industry experience.

Lutz begged for federal regulators to “talk to us and see what is possible, what’s commercially feasible vs. what isn’t.”

Instead, regulators are content to repeat clichés on how auto makers cried wolf about not being able to meet federal fuel economy and emissions standards in the 1970s.

While average fuel economy numbers have been flat since the 1980s, engine power has soared 70% and 0-60 times have plummeted even as vehicle mass has increased. It’s happened that way because that’s what consumers have been buying.

In the future, auto makers can dramatically increase fuel economy with advanced combustion technology, hybrid-electric vehicles, clean diesels, new transmissions and other improvements.

But law makers need to understand they can’t rewrite the laws of physics and thermodynamics.

Not only does the U.S. need better math and science education in public schools, it needs it in Congress and the White House.

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