Honda: New US CAFE is a “Game Changer”

Jose Michael

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Historic CAFE fuel economy (unadjusted for EPA rating) and projected MY 2011-2015 targets. Click to enlarge. Data: EPA, Honda

American Honda Motors (AHM) views the new CAFE regulations under development as a “game changer” both in terms of how fuel economy is determined and in likely responses by automakers. Honda supports the CAFE rules as “good energy policy”, said John German, AHM’s Manager, Environmental Policy Analysis, in a recent briefing. However, he noted, the new rules will be challenging for the auto industry, as the percentage annual increases in fuel economy are triple the historic rate for the US market, and twice the actual rate of increase in Japan and in Europe over the last 10-15 years.

The structure of the new rules will likely result in higher new vehicle prices, German said. Because the rules also now include societal benefit—including CO2 reduction—as well as direct benefit in the analysis of technology potential, the cost of the new technology may be higher than the customer’s perceived benefit value, he noted.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) establishes the basis for the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules, and mandates the setting of separate attribute-based maximum feasible standards for passenger cars and for light trucks at levels sufficient to ensure that the average fuel economy of the combined fleet of all passenger cars and light trucks sold by all manufacturers in the US in model year (MY) 2020 equals or exceeds 35 mpg. (Earlier post.)

In April, the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for new vehicle fuel economy standards that would bring the US average to about 31.6 miles per gallon in 2015 (35.7 mpg cars, 28.6 mpg trucks). Under EISA, NHTSA, the agency that “owns” fuel economy regulations, can establish standards for a maximum of five model years at one time. Hence, the initial proposed rulemaking covers model years 2011-2015.

NHTSA followed this with the release in October of the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) on the new CAFE rules for light-duty vehicles from model years 2011 to 2015. Under Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations, NHTSA must compare the potential environmental impacts of its proposed action and a reasonable range of alternatives. In fulfillment of this requirement, NHTSA analyzed the impacts of six “action” alternatives and the impacts that would be expected if NHTSA imposed no new requirements (the No Action Alternative). (Earlier post.) NHTSA will shortly publish the final CAFE rule for MY 2011-2015.

To determine maximum feasible fuel economy, NHTSA assessed benefits and costs across a wide range of technologies in multiple categories. The agency is setting fuel economy standards at levels so that the cost of the latest technology essentially equals the benefits of the improvement of fuel economy resulting from the application of the technology.

To reach the minimum permitted fuel economy target of 35 mpg in 2020, the fleet average will need to increase at about 3.3% per year. NHTSA chose to be more aggressive in the first installment of the rules (MY 2011-2015), resulting in an estimated 4.5% annual increase in estimated fleet average fuel economy through 2015. Past increases in technology efficiency have largely gone into size and performance (earlier post); the 4.5% rate is triple the historic norm. As a result, the CAFE standards may ultimately exceed 35 mpg by 2020, German said.

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Attribute-based fuel economy standards under the new CAFE regulations. Click to enlarge.

Under new CAFE, each automaker has its own attribute-based standard based on its fleet mix. There is no longer any inherent advantage in selling small cars, German noted; as you move to larger-sized vehicles, the fuel economy requirements decline.

As there is no inherent advantage in downsizing, German noted, vehicles are likely to remain similar in size while increasing fuel efficiency through advanced technology, weight reduction and aerodynamics. There is no advantage to companies that produce smaller vehicles, and no penalty to companies making more larger vehicles.

This is regulating technology, not fuel economy.

—John German

Ben Knight, Vice President of Honda R&D Americas, said that Honda was focusing on a number of pathways ahead, but continues to view hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles as potentially the ultimate solution to energy and environment sustainability.

In the more immediate term, Knight said, there are numerous opportunities to continue to increase the efficiency of the internal combustion engine, which will continue to play a role in more efficient conventional vehicles and hybrids.

Knight noted that the current Civic Hybrid already exceeds the proposed MY 2015 CAFE standards for a vehicle of its size, and said that Honda will focus on more compact and affordable hybrid technology applied to smaller vehicles.

Alternative fuels such as CNG and advanced biofuels will also play a role in reducing the carbon footprint of vehicles. Honda has been working with RITE (Research Institute of Technology for the Earth) on a cellulosic ethanol production process. (Earlier post.) A new test plant in Fall 2009 will further evaluate potential for volume production. The partners are also exploring the production of biobutanol. (Earlier post.)

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Greenhouse gas emissions for a variety of electric drive vehicles. Click to enlarge.

While electric drive will be the future, and many promising approaches exist (PHEV, BEV, FCV), it is too soon, Knight said, to tell which ones will prevail. For BEVs and PHEVs, the biggest challenge is the battery technology. Plug-in hybrids and battery electric hybrids also off-load some or all CO2 emissions to the grid. There is potential for sustainability, but the impact on CO2 reduction depends on production source, he said. While 50% of US electricity is derived from carbon-intensive coal-fired power plants, in some states a battery-electric vehicle is essentially a “coal-powered” vehicle.

In comparison, Knight said, steam methane reforming (SMR) is a more efficient use of methane than power generation due to the efficiency of the process. Fuel cell vehicles such as Honda’s FCX Clarity can achieve a 62% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to a comparably sized conventional gasoline sedan even when using hydrogen produced by SMR—40% less CO2 than a battery electric vehicle of similar size on the US average grid mix. With renewable hydrogen, the GHG levels approach zero.

(The FCX Clarity, Knight noted, meets the original PNGV goal established during the Clinton administration of 80 mpg for a mid-size sedan.)

Challenges for fuel cell vehicles continue to be the cost of the technology and the hydrogen infrastructure. On the cost side, Honda is targeting a level 10% that of the current cost within 10 years, and is making a significant investment in mass production for its fuel cell stack in Japan.

Honda continues to develop home-based hydrogen generation and refueling, and is testing its fourth generation design in Torrance. Although the system is still experimental, Knight said, Honda is making significant progress. Ultimately, Honda is targeting fuel cell vehicles powered by hydrogen from renewable sources, and continues to develop and manufacture solar cells and electrolyzers.

In terms of a market mix of technologies and CAFE, however, fuel cell vehicles will just be getting started with only a small presence by 2020, German said.

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