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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Greenbacks for Greener Cars

Air Date: Week of

With Detroit bleeding red ink and asking for another handout, lawmakers and environmentalist say now is the time to demand green cars from the Big Three automakers. UC-Davis Professor Daniel Sperling tells host Bruce Gellerman any bailout must require affordable, fuel efficient vehicles.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, This is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.

They already got 25 billion dollars to help them build more fuel-efficient cars, now America’s Big Three automakers want more, another 25 billion to stay afloat as sales disintegrate. Professor Daniel Sperling of UC-Davis says as long as taxpayers are shelling out so much green, maybe there should be green benefits to the bailout. Professor Sperling is founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies.

SPERLING: I think this is an opportunity. This is a lot of money, but we can use it to pursue the public interest to do what’s good for society. And I think that means focusing on innovation, especially with respect to low carbon vehicles, fuel-efficient vehicles, the plug in vehicles, the battery vehicles, the fuel cell vehicles.

GELLERMAN: Well how do we get from here to there? How do we insure that this money goes with green strings attached?

SPERLING: I think first of all, we just need to elicit guarantees from those companies that they really are going to roll out large volumes of affordable, fuel efficient, low carbon vehicles. You know, these Detroit companies, GM in particular, really have very strong technological capabilities, but they’re known also for not taking what’s in the lab and bringing it into the market place. They haven’t shown the vision, the commitment, the leadership. And let’s finance this whole thing by creating a price floor for gasoline. Let’s set it at like three-and-a-half dollars a gallon, and we can have a variable tax – if it goes below that, we have a tax to push it up to $3.50. And we can use those funds to support, perhaps some of even the smaller start up companies that are innovative, and some of the funds can be used for, you know, those low income people where it really is a hardship.

GELLERMAN: But is it Detroit’s fault or is it my fault? That is you know, here, you know, people have been asking for SUVs and trucks, the F150 was the best selling vehicle in America for decades. Who got it wrong?

SPERLING: Well, we’re all complicit in that. But, you know, the way to go I think is providing performance standards that they have to meet. They’ve been able to block those for years. You know, the car companies, they just went more and more towards the trucks. They had convinced themselves that this was a smart, strategic, profitable way to go. And they weren’t understanding that circumstances change. And in fact, you know the short-term interests of the customers are not necessarily in the longterm interest of the company or the country or the world.

GELLERMAN: The question is: Who’s gonna make these cars of the future? Is it gonna be the American automakers or is it going to be foreign automakers?

SPERLING: You know, its gotten into this political debate about, you know, supporting the domestic car companies and the jobs versus, you know, the imported cars. But what we’ve seen is these so called imported companies have moved their factories into the U.S. We’re not so dependent. You know the expression back in the 1950’s when the president of GM said, “What’s good for GM is good for America” I think doesn’t hold true nearly as much as it did then.

GELLERMAN: I want you to look at about ten years from now, and predict what the average car will get miles per gallon wise.

SPERLING: Well there’s already the new fuel economy standards adopted last December by the Congress, required a 40 percent increase by 2020. And California has adopted a law, these greenhouse gas standards for vehicles that would push it up another twenty percent. In fact now, the way the market’s going, that’s probably going to be relatively easy to achieve. You know we can push our internal combustion engine cars and trucks up to about double the fuel economy of what it is now, And then, we can take it further with using the plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles, the fuel cells. So we can do much much better than we are now. You know one little factoid I’d give you to illustrate that is in the 1980s, the average car went from 0 to 60 in fourteen and a half seconds. The average car today does that in nine and a half seconds. And that’s being much heavier as well. So what’s happened is, we’ve had all this innovation in the vehicles. But all of that innovation, efficiency innovations been used to make our vehicles faster and more powerful.

GELLERMAN: What we need to do is go from 0-60 miles per gallon faster.


SPERLING: Well, you know, if so extreme. I just saw a Corvette now go zero to sixty in 3.4 seconds. I mean that’s – that’s a rocket. Why do we have these vehicles? If we start backing off just a little bit on that, we’re going to see tremendous improvements in fuel economy.

GELLERMAN: Well Professor Sperling, I want to thank you very much. I really appreciate it.

SPERLING: Well, it’s been a pleasure.

GELLERMAN: UC Davis Professor Daniel Sperling’s new book is "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability."



Daniel Sperling


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