More efficient vehicles on the way

Buy a fuel-efficient or hybrid car.

That is one of the first tips on the now ubiquitous ‘what you can do to stop global warming?’ lists. There certainly will be more options in the near future.

According to HybridCenter, almost every major car company has a few hybrids in the works. The new hybrids will come in all shapes, sizes, and mileage ratings. The compact Honda Fit. The midsize Nissan Altima. The bulky Dodge Durango SUV, with roughly the fuel efficiency of a 1978 Datsun. The rather ridiculous Cadillac Escalade, with roughly the fuel efficiency of a non-hybrid Dodge Durango.

The most promising new designs are the compacts and next generation hybrid vehicles that will actually have high fuel efficiency. The hybrid Honda Fit, for example, is being produced in place of the deceptively inefficient hybrid Honda Accord (in which electric engine is used to bump up power, not increase fuel efficiency). Chevrolet is planning something called the Volt, a plug-in hybrid that may be able to travel 65 km on batteries without any action from the gas engine. And the next generation Toyota Prius is rumoured to get somewhere from 70 – 113 mpg (2-3.3 L/100 km), and apparently without plug-in capability. That’s no Adobe.

Even everyone’s favourite verb is getting in on the action., the new philanthropic arm of the internet behemoth, is pushing the idea of plug-in hybrids. The company has converted a few Ford Escapes and Toyota Prius’s (sp?) to plug-in and set up a solar charging facility at their California offices. The plug-in Prius can get 75 mpg or 3.1 L/100 km and can potentially return energy to the electricity grid at times of peak demand.

To ensure that such promising vehicles are mass-produced and available to Canadians – that the automotive market goes efficient, not escalade – we’ll need the right policies and incentive packages directed at both manufacturers and consumers.

It is happening here in Canada. Far too slowly, perhaps. But it is happening.

Earlier this year, B.C. adopted the California policy: a 30% reduction in tailpipe carbon emissions an increase use of more efficient low-carbon fuels. Ontario has agreed only to require more efficient fuels, not more efficient vehicles. Addressing the carbon emissions from the generation of gasoline or ethanol is certainly important; it is also certain to pressure the companies extracting oil in the energy-intensive oil sands. But reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions from transportation also means looking at how the fuel is actually used.

The problem for Ontario — and with one-third of the country’s population, the problem for all of Canada — has been the province’s large and reticent automotive industry. Ontario’s automakers and their union have been opposed to legislated increases in fuel efficiency for years. They openly chafed at the federal subsidies for fuel-efficient vehicles suggested earlier this year.

Things may be changing. First, the opposition to federal subsidies was fair -- the subsidy plan wasn't well thought through. It set a hard standard for cars and another for light trucks. A vehicle meeting the standard is eligible for a subsidy. A vehicle that misses the standard even slightly does not. That means a car that is only 0.1 L/100 km above the limit gets no subsidy. It also means that a truck which is less efficient, in absolute terms, does get a subsidy. As such, the plan won’t last past the next election, whenever that happens.

Second, Ontario’s $650 million investment to encourage green development in the automotive industry is a start. It is not a great start – the money will be spent on making large vehicles more efficient using things like “active fuel management” (allowing an engine to use fewer cylinders when possible) thus giving tacit approval to 8-cylinder engines that are largely unnecessary for any non-commercial activity – but it is a start.

Finally, the political reticence in Ontario and the federal subsidy inconsistencies are probably only a temporary stumbling block, now that the famously reticent U.S has inched towards an increase in CAFÉ standards to 35 mpg by 2020 (that’s 6.5 L/100km, up from the current average of 9.2 L/100 km). If the US Senate plan, a small part of this year’s otherwise shoddy energy bill, passes through the Congress, it will become a reality. The car companies will get the signal they need to push production of the more efficient vehicles, in line with the California and BC policies.

The next step is to amend that opening line: "Buy a fuel-efficient or hybrid car. Or even better, drive less”. Now that would be world changing.