This Week’s Top 10: EPA and NHTSA differ on fuel economy decisions, VW showing second electric vehicle in I.D. family at Detroit Auto Show

by Jon LeSage, editor and publisher, Green Auto Market

Here’s my take on the 10 most significant and interesting occurrences during the past week………..

  1. Federal fuel economy standardsFeds differ on fuel economy rules:  It appears that the Environment Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are taking different approaches to working with the new administration on the fuel economy and emissions regulations; it may also signify the Obama administration supporting the standards but encouraging flexibility with automakers on how it’s all carried out. Last week, the EPA told lobbyist group Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers that the midterm review deadline won’t be extended beyond the Obama administration leaving office. That agency’s decision was expected by auto lobbyists who had appealed the EPA’s earlier ruling. About that time, NHTSA responded to a petition from groups representing automakers postponing the increase in penalties for noncompliance with the fuel economy standards. That increase would have gone back to 2015 model-year vehicles, but the amended version begins with 2019 model-year vehicles. In a separate decision, NHTSA granted a request for a formal rule-making process to be put in place – to resolve differences between greenhouse-gas standards overseen by the EPA and the fuel-economy standards administered by NHTSA. The penalty increase had comes from a law enacted last year for all federal agencies to raise penalty fees as a deterrent and to keep up with inflation.
  2. VW van:  In teaser photos sent out with a brief announcement, Volkswagen said that it’s now designing the second electric vehicle in the I.D. family. This one may be closer to a classic VW van or microbus, and is said to be “a multi-functional vehicle for a new era” that “links between the legendary origins of the Volkswagen brand and its electrifying future.” Like the I.D. sedan concept launched at the Paris Motor Show, it’s based on the Modular Electric Drive Kit (MEB). The German automaker says that I.D. can stand for purity in design language, and for a new generation of fully connected, all-electric vehicles from the company. Drivers will have a fully autonomous vehicle where the steering wheel retracts into the dashboard; and laser scanners, ultrasonic and radar sensors, and cameras monitor other vehicles and the electric VW’s surroundings. It’s another step in the automaker’s post-“Dieselgate” vehicle electrification strategy; and it’s scheduled to be revealed in more detail next month at the Detroit Auto Show.
  3. Tesla wins owner survey:  Tesla Motors won the owner satisfaction brand award from Consumer Reports’ readers for the second year in a row. For those taking the survey, 91% of Tesla owners said they would buy their Tesla vehicle again, while 84% of No. 2 Porsche owners would buy that same vehicle again. Tesla, Porsche, Audi, and Subaru remained in the top four spots from last year. In October, Consumer Reports recommended that Tesla resolve two structural issues in its Model X electric SUV – including problems getting the Falcon Wing doors to work correctly. Tesla owners who took the survey seemed to be less concerned about it than did Consumer Reports’ editors.
  4. DOE grants on alternative fuels:  The U.S. Department of Energy has announced more than $18 million in grants awarded supporting vehicle electrification, propane direct injection, and other alternative fuels. Odyne Systems will receive $2.9 million to develop and demonstrate plug-in hybrid work trucks (class 7) that reduce fuel consumption by more than 50 percent and eliminate fuel consumption during stationary operations. Blue Bird Corp. will receive $4.9 million to develop and demonstrate a battery-powered electric school bus that improves propulsion energy efficiency by 20-30 percent and that can connect to the electric grid (vehicle-to-grid). Blossman Services is being awarded $2 million to develop a 4.3L propane direct injection engine and emission control system that will be demonstrated on a package delivery vehicle.  PacifiCorp will receive $3.9 million to accelerate electric vehicle adoption by developing electric highway corridors along I-15, I-80, I-70, and I-84 in Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. Gas Technology Institute (Des Plaines, IL) will receive $4.9 million to deploy multi-fuel stations (including electric vehicle charging stations, compressed natural gas, biofuels, and propane stations) and alternative fuel vehicles (including electric drive) along I-94 from Port Huron, Michigan to the North Dakota border.
  5. Uber moves to Arizona:  Uber used flatbed trucks, managed by its Otto subsidiary, to transport 16 Volvos used in its self-driving car test project from California to Arizona. While Otto specializes in running self-driving commercial trucks, it appeared that these trucks were operated by drivers. Uber’s move came after California’s Department of Motor Vehicles revoked the registration of the ride-hailing company’s self-driving cars because the company refused to get the $150 permits for testing autonomous cars that the state requires. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey invited Uber to cross state lines on Wednesday and Thursday, including through a social media campaign; on Thursday, Uber left California for Arizona. There may be more than 16 self-driving vehicles that will be tested by Uber in San Francisco, and the company hasn’t provided a date on when testing will begin in Arizona.
  6. Sustainability report:  Waste Management this month released its annual sustainability report, which announced that the company recycled and composted more than 14 million tons of materials from the waste stream in 2015; and as a company, Waste Management is a net greenhouse gas reducer. Its fleet uses more 5,100 natural gas vehicles, which the company says is the largest fleet of its kind in North America. The company reported using technology at landfill-gas-to-energy facilities to power the equivalent of 470,000 households, offsetting 2.5 million tons of coal per year and 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. You can view the report here.
  7. Honda and Waymo discussing self-driving cars:  Honda Motor Co. has been in talks with Google’s new self-driving car unit, Waymo, to test out some of the technology in Honda’s vehicles. Both companies said that it’s a research project and not a development deal for full-production vehicles. Honda may go beyond the preliminary phase to provide Waymo with vehicles that are modified to run the self-driving system; those Honda vehicles would join the existing Waymo fleet currently being tested in four U.S. cities. Honda follows FCA in making a self-driving vehicle test program. Michelle Krebs, an analyst at Cox Automotive’s Autotrader.com, sees Google and Apple more likely to enter technology partnerships with automakers rather than face the capital intensive and demanding regulatory clearance that vehicle manufacturers must go through.
  8. Land-fill free target:  General Motors has beat its landfill-free target four years early. In 2011, the automaker had set a goal to operate 150 landfill-free sites by 2020. This year, it added 23 of these sites, and now has 152 facilities globally that send zero waste to landfills. The company accomplished this through recycling used water bottles into engine cover insulation and recycling grinding wheels as sandpaper, among other initiatives. GM also partnered with Herman Miller and Green Standards to repurpose and recycle tens of thousands of pieces of office furniture and equipment.
  9. Hydrogen stations growing 10-fold:  Nikola Motor Co., which operates hydrogen fuel cell semi-trucks, will be rolling out a nationwide network of hydrogen fueling stations that will be accessible to other fuel cell vehicles. That would increase the U.S.’s present status of 33 hydrogen stations more than 10-fold to 364 more stations built by Nikola. This infrastructure network will begin construction in a year, in January 2018, and will begin opening in late 2019, according to CEO Trevor Milton. Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes, and other automakers developing fuel cell cars, will be very interested in seeing this happen.
  10. VW ride-hailing in Africa:  Volkswagen has added a ride-hailing service in Rwanda as part of its mobility services, and to access a market that Uber hasn’t yet gained presence. Uber operates in several African countries, including Kenya where it launched in early 2015 and now faces competitive pressure from local companies. VW is working hard at expanding its electrified vehicle offerings and mobility services as it emerges from the “Dieselgate” scandal. Rwanda is thought to be a less competitive market, and a good one for VW to establish its presence in the region. The German automaker has been active on the ride-hailing front this year, having invested $300 million in Gett.

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