September 23, 2005


UPDATE 9/26/05: Pretty good blow-by-blow coverage of the monorail's unraveling in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Saturday.

We're not dead yet, proclaims the monorail board.

Just minutes ago, the board unanimously agreed to send the monorail back to the voters this November. This is apparently a last ditch effort to resuscitate the project in the face of stern opposition from the mayor and city council. The new plan may actually be financially viable because it will truncate the full Green Line route: the line would now run from the West Seattle Junction to downtown to Dravus Street in Interbay (between Magnolia and Queen Anne), a rather obvious solution that I've suggested before. (This slightly shortens the West Seattle route and lops off Ballard with the expensive bridge across the ship canal.)

What the heck is going on?

To my list of criticisms of the monorail board, let me now add: politically clueless and frenetic. It didn't exactly take a rocket scientist (or even a monorail planner) to see that city officials were serious about holding the project accountable to a financing plan that could pass a straight-face test. Why the monorail waited until the 13th hour to offer voters a new plan is utterly beyond me.

There is one possible silver lining, however. A shortened monorail line could conceivably be affordable. And the shortened line would still bridge the critical link between West Seattle and downtown. That could help replace lost capacity in the Alaska Way Viaduct, which is looking ever more likely to come down and be replaced by, well, nothing.

Perhaps instead of funneling billions into substitute road capacity, the city-county-state-feds should consider funding the monorail. If government chips in some money, they could--and should--attach some meaningful strings: namely, better leadership and public oversight. But I suppose I'm just being Pollyanna.

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

September 20, 2005

Gas Mileage: (More) Truth in Advertising

We previously discussed problems with the way the EPA lets auto manufacturers measure the fuel efficiency of their vehicles.  What with all the hullabaloo, the EPA proposed to revise its testing methods by the end of the year so they more resemble the real world. According to the Boston Globe, the three core changes would be to:

  • Alter testing to reflect today's more aggressive and high-speed driving habits, as well as address traffic-stifling congestion in cities and expanding suburbs.
  • Account for vehicles driven in cold climates, where fuel economy suffers.
  • Calculate the impact of accessories, such as air conditioners, that cut fuel economy.

While individual drivers still might find that their vehicles' gas mileage doesn't match up with official figures, because of differences in driving conditions and habits, the new EPA estimates would give them a better idea about actual annual fuel costs. Even better, since CAFE standards are based on these tests, more accurate tests would mean more accurate CAFE estimates, likely causing auto manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency all around.

Posted by Jessica Branom-Zwick | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 19, 2005

The Scrap Heap Is History?

Check it out: by 2015, all cars sold in Europe must be 95% recyclable.  Apparently, Mercedes-Benz already has a 2007-model year car that meets the requirement.

Part of me wonders if automotive engineers aren't actually excited by this sort of challenge.  It seems that whenever a new idea like this comes along, the auto executives complain about how impossible and costly it will be -- but as soon as the industry's hands are forced, the engineers figure out how to pull it off faster and cheaper than the executives had claimed was possible.  It happened with catalytic converters, with seat belts, with air bags.  And now, if early signs are any guide, it's happening with recycling.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 15, 2005

SUV Watershed

There's more to this article than the headline, but the headline alone says quite a bit:  "Poll: 8 in 10 want drivers to drop SUVs."  That's another tentative -- though possibly shallow -- sign that high gas prices are turning Americans against their gas guzzlers.  Of course, since SUVs, trucks and minivans have commanded roughly half of the new vehicle market in recent years, one wonders if this means that 3 in 10 people want other drivers to drop their low-mileage vehicles.

Other poll responses are equally telling. Seven out of 10 respondents want to the government to fight rising gasoline bills by establishing price controls. Of course, holding down prices makes us consume more gas than we otherwise would, which in a world of limited petroleum supplies could lead to all sorts of other problems -- shortages, rationing, etc.  (As The Washington Post's Robert Samuelson reminds us, Cheap Gas Is a Bad Habit.)

Seven out of 10 also support new government spending on transit.  But almost six in 10 now think it's more important to explore for new sources of energy than to protect the environment; and five in 10 favor opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, up from just 42 percent earlier in the year.

The obvious result of a poll like this is that consumers are just screaming for something -- anything -- that might bring gas prices down.  And mostly they're looking for solutions that involve government subsidies -- for energy companies, transit, and gas consumers themselves -- or for sacrifice by someone else. That's not surprising. 

But what's all-too-clear from polls like this is that solutions that could really ramp up fuel efficiency and curtail consumption over the long term -- think feebates, or fighting sprawl, or paying for car insurance by the mile -- really aren't on the political landscape.  And that's probably because politicians (and pollsters) simply don't talk about them.  Which seems odd.  After all, they're no more infeasible than, say, expecting the powers-that-be to cut into oil industry profits by capping the price of gasoline.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 12, 2005

Gas Mileage: Consumer Retorts

As Jessica mentioned last week, Consumer Reports recently claimed that EPA's vehicle ratings routinely overstate how fuel-efficient cars and trucks are in real-world driving.  For standard cars and trucks, the magazine says, EPA's ratings overstate real-world fuel economy by 30 percent.  But for small hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, they claim that EPA overstates actual miles-per-gallon by a hefty 42 percent.  (Ouch.)

Now, I believe that there's reason to question Consumer Reports' figures.  Of course, I have read a number of reports that the Toyota Prius doesn't actually get the EPA-rated 55 mpg in combined city/highway driving (though some people -- particularly those who've optimized their hybrid-driving habits -- get pretty close, and these folks actually squeezed out 110 mpg from their Prius, albeit in highly non-standard driving conditions).  But I'd never heard any claim that the typical Prius averages just 32 mpg -- which is what the magazine's figures suggest.  See this comment by WorldChanging's Jamais Cascio for a similar take.

But, just for the sake of argument, let's take the CR figures at face value, and assume that small hybrids' mileage really is overstated by 42 percent, vs. just 30 percent for regular cars.  Doesn't the higher mpg reduction for hybrids suggest that their fuel-savings advantages vs. regular cars are overstated -- and that they don't save as much money as advertised?

Actually, no.  As counterintuitive as it may sound, the Consumer Reports figures, on their face, actually bolster the economic case for buying hybrids.

As we've said before, mpg math is tricky.  And though it may be hard to believe at first, Consumer Report's figures suggest that the Prius is an even better choice in the real world than EPA's fuel economy ratings would suggest.

Consider, for example, a regular, non-hybrid car with an EPA fuel economy rating of 30 mpg.  "Officially" it burns 2 gallons of gas every 60 miles.  But Consumer Reports estimates that the vehicle actually would get 21 mpg in real world driving -- 30 percent less than advertised.  Which means that over the course of 60 miles, the car actually burns 2.9 gallons of gas.

Now consider the Prius, with an overall EPA fuel economy rating of 55 mpg.  At its advertised mileage, it burns about 1.1 gallons of gas every 60 miles.  But if its mileage is reduced to 32 mpg -- a 42 percent reduction, per Consumer Reports' estimate for small hybrids -- then it uses about 1.9 gallons of gas every 60 miles.

So that gives us...

  Gallons consumed in 60 miles
"Ideal" "Real World"
Prius (rated 55 mpg) 1.1 1.9
Regular car (rated 30 mpg) 2 2.9

Look at the "ideal" column -- which represents how much gas EPA says the two cars should burn over 60 miles.  The Prius has a .9 gallon advantage -- a nice bonus.  But look at the "real world" column:  as estimated using Consumer Reports' figures, the "real world" Prius has a full one-gallon advantage over the "real world" regular car. 

In other words, the Prius is actually an even better deal--roughly 10 percent better--in the real world than it is in the abstract.  And compared with lower-mileage cars and trucks, the "real world" Prius looks better still.

Now, this obviously isn't evidence for or against Consumer Reports' estimates for hybrids.  And it doesn't do much to change my assessment that buying a Prius can be a pretty pricey way to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. 

Still, it's good to remember that, as Barbie famously said, math is hard -- and miles-per-gallon math turns out to be among the more counterintuitive gauges that Americans are expected to understand.  So it's important to actually run the numbers.  Apparently, at least when it comes to gas mileage, it's just not enough to trust your instincts.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

September 08, 2005

For Fuel Economy, the Numbers DO Lie

With gas prices soaring, some people may trade in their gas-guzzlers for more fuel efficient vehicles. But don't trust the EPA ratings. A recent analysis by Consumer Reports shows that 90% of vehicles get worse gas mileage than advertised -- in some cases more than 50% worse for city driving. And nationally, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) may be overstated by a whopping 30 percent.

How does this happen? Manufacturers inflate fuel efficiency in several ways. First, they don't test cars the way people actually drive. Vehicles are tested in a laboratory, not on actual roads. And while the EPA assumes that 55% of driving is done in city traffic, which uses more fuel than highway driving, many cars actually spend 62% of time there, according to Consumer Reports. Second, the car they test is not the car you buy. Manufacturers are allowed to use prototypes built especially for the fuel economy test, so they often modify them (within limits) to get the best rating possible.

In 1984 the EPA responded to an outcry by consumers who were angry that they could not get the fuel efficiency advertised. But rather than change the way it tests cars, the EPA just adjusted the test results it reports: 10% lower mpg for city driving, 22% lower for highway. And, as Consumer Reports shows, even these adjusted numbers still aren't accurate, especially in city driving.

And worse, CAFE standards, already low and full of loopholes, are also affected. Automakers successfully lobbied so that only the unadjusted mpg ratings are used when enforcing CAFE standards. While the government estimates that the fleet of 2003-model-year passenger cars that Consumer Reports tested averaged 29.7 mpg, Consumer Reports only got 22.7, well below the current standard of 27.5 mpg. For light truck the difference was 21.4 mpg versus 16, with a standard of 20.7 mpg.

When buying a new car, follow Consumer Reports's advice:

The EPA sticker can help you evaluate relative gas mileage among vehicles, but not absolute mpg.. .. [D]iscount the EPA sticker numbers for city travel as follows: conventional cars and trucks, 30 percent; larger hybrids, 35 percent; diesels, 36 percent; smaller hybrids, 42 percent.

For more information, go to the sourceConsumer Reports has the complete article online plus its rating for 303 vehicles (use links in their left column), available until November 2, 2005.

Posted by Jessica Branom-Zwick | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 30, 2005

Last West-Coast Clean Car Domino Falls

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski just tipped over the last clean car domino on the west coast:  he's directed his Department of Ecology to draft regulations for adopting California's clean-car standards.

This is a major step.  Washington State had opted for California's standards, provided that Oregon adopted them too.  Because Canada has adopted similar standards, Oregon's move has created a clean car corridor stretching from San Diego through northern British Columbia.  Together, between California, Canada, and the northwest and northeastern states that have followed their lead, about 40 percent of the North American new car market will soon be cleaner and, if all goes well, more fuel efficient to boot.  (There's a pretty good chronology of all the political action on the car standards here, if you scroll down through our blog posts.)

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 22, 2005

Smog Cops vs. Social Justice

And in other news from the remote sensing front, there was an interesting article in the LA Times last week about the South Coast Air Quality Management District's testing of an automated device that measures tailpipe emissions (free subscription required). The article explains that testing has begun for a remote sensing device that measures tailpipe emissions and photographs an offender's license plate for ticketing.

The technology has been around for some years now. And it's about time for deployment.

But it's also worrisome from a social justice perspective. The article fails to mention if the SCAQMD [we used to say "squawk mud"] program will ensure that the poor's only mode of transport is not eliminated if they cannot afford the full cost of retrofit. Sure, there are freeloaders that dilute their actions throughout society. But many of the polluting vehicles are the only cars the poor can afford in a transit-unfriendly town -- the under- or less-well employed often cannot rely on transit to get to work.

I know when I lived in Sacramento, another transit-unfriendly town, I could only take transit to a narrow range of choices. (Riding my bike 14 miles to work took, literally, one-third the time of transit, and I'm fit.) The same is true in LA. Not having a car in LA is not an option if you wish to feed your family.

There is not just one solution to reducing outstanding polluters. As Mark Hertsgaard found in Earth Odyssey, most people on the planet wish to decrease their pollution. They just can't afford to. They're too busy just trying to get by.

This new emissions device cannot be used as a blunt instrument: We must ensure it's used properly when it comes to our comparatively transit-friendly region.

Posted by Dan Staley | Permalink | Comments (1)

August 09, 2005

Sins of Emissions

Some news bits from the Oregon legislative session, which just ended:

As the Oregonian reports, the auto industry has been trying to head off an Oregon effort to adopt "clean-car" emissions standards by including language in the budget that would effectively prohibit DEQ from implementing the standards. (Clean-car standards, which Washington state just adopted, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by some 30 percent and help drive the industry toward cleaner, more efficient design.) Governor Kulongoski has promised to counteract the move by using his veto power.

Meanwhile, the industry succeeded in effectively defeating a biofuels bill, which would have provided incentives for in-state production and use of renewable fuels such as ethanol  and biodiesel.

Automakers aren't exactly winning points for innovative thinking. From the Oregonian editorial:

The House Republicans who let this happen ought to have to spend the next election explaining why they would trade off Oregon jobs, Oregon agriculture and Oregon innovation all in a futile effort to extend a pollution tax credit and enable the auto industry to keep churning out cars that are less fuel efficient than those they made 20 years ago....

The auto industry has fought every advance -- seat belts, catalytic converters, air bags -- with this same argument about unacceptable costs. Every time its claims have been shown to be wildly inflated and wrong.

And in good news (mostly), the state did win a partial ban on toxic flame retardants known as PBDEs. Our study of PBDEs in Northwest women showed that the chemicals were found in relatively high levels in Oregonians; and a recent study of PBDEs in house dust found that Oregon samples had the highest levels of PBDEs.

Posted by Elisa Murray | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 20, 2005

Driver's Ed, Hybrid Style

Much has been made of the discrepancy between the rated fuel economy of hybrid cars and the actual results that drivers get on the road. Sure, "actual mileage may vary," but that variance proved particularly wide for hybrids, and was especially aggravating since fuel efficiency was the main reason people bought the hybrids in the first place.

Now comes the Dean of Energy Geeks, Amory Lovins, to offer a solution. According to his half-page piece in the current issue of the Rocky Mountain Institute newsletter (p. 15 of large pdf), hybrid owners need to learn a new style of driving to take advantage of their cars' technology. Lovins calls it "pulse driving," and it has two main components:
- Brisk acceleration, then letting up once you reach cruising speed. "The engine is most efficient at high speed and torque," he writes.
- Gentle braking, anticipating the need to stop. This allows the car to recover as much energy as possible and feed it into the battery. If you try to stop more suddenly, the mechanical brakes kick in, and they dissipate that precious energy as mere heat.

Lovins claims that this strategy has enabled him to eek out 63 mpg with snow tires on his 64-mpg-rated Insight, and will bring in 53 to 55 mpg on the 55-mpg-rated Prius.

Not having a Prius, I can't test-drive this advice, but I'd be curious how it squares with the observations of all you hybrid drivers out there.

Posted by SethZuckerman | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack