Study: Fuel Usage Could Drop 80% by 2050 with 74 MPG Cars

By Paul Riegler on 20 March 2013
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Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid

A study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy shows that a combination of more efficient vehicles, changes in government policy, and the adoption of alternative fuels could lower the amount of fuel and greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks by as much as 80% by the year 2050.

The report was prepared by the National Research Council, one of three entities that comprise the National Academies, private, independent nonprofit institutions. These entities are responsible for providing science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to NAS in 1863. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

Light-duty vehicles comprise half of the United States’ oil consumption.  Making cars lighter and more efficient would play a significant role in reducing fuel consumption and environmental impact.  However, government regulators and automakers would need to improve on and reevaluate the planned Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards set for 2025, which call for new cars to achieve 54.5 miles per gallon (4.31 l/100 km).  The study envisions a 74 mpg (3.17 l/100 km) CAFE standard where hybrid vehicles might get 94 mpg (2.5 l/100 km).

Despite the high numbers, these new standards would not be enough to cut oil consumption by the desired goal of 80%.  To accomplish this, the average fuel economy would have to be 180 mpg (1.3 l/100 km).  Therefore, the researchers said, “biofuels would have to be expanded greatly or the LDV fleet would have to be composed largely of CNGVs compressed natural gas vehicles, [e.g. the Honda Civic Natural Gas], BEVs [battery electric vehicles, e.g. the Nissan Leaf]; and/or FCEVs [fuel-cell electric vehicles, such as the forthcoming Mercedes F-Cell].”

The vehicle you may be driving in 2050 could be a traditional internal combustion engine, or it may be powered by electricity, hydrogen, or biofuel.  The report highlighted the potential use of biofuels made from lignocellulosic biomass (based on dry plant matter), a direct replacement for gasoline at the pump, as a major contributor to a lower dependence on petroleum.  Such fuels can come from crop residues such as wheat straw, switchgrass, whole trees, and wood waste.

“Large reductions are potentially achievable in annual LDV [light-duty vehicle] GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions by 2050, on the order of 60 to 70 percent relative to 2005,” according to the study, which was released Monday. “An 80 percent reduction in LDV GHG emissions by 2050 may be technically achievable, but will be very difficult.”

The report also pointed out that a conversion to natural gas would dramatically cut fuel consumption in vehicles and would not be “technologically difficult” to implement.  However, cars powered by natural gas emit high levels of greenhouse gases, therefore making the conversion an unwise choice.

The report indicates that all three potential pathways should be explored: “The committee believes that hydrogen/fuel cells are at least as promising as battery electric vehicles in the long term and should be funded accordingly.”  It also cast doubt as to whether battery-electric vehicles will have mass-market appeal.  “A battery large enough for a 300-mile real-world range would still present significant weight and volume penalties and probably could not be recharged in much less than 30 minutes,” the study concluded. “Therefore, BEVs may be used mainly for local travel rather than as all-purpose vehicles.”

The researchers also warned against too much government intervention: “The commercialization of fuel and vehicle technologies is best left to the private sector in response to performance-based policies, or policies that target reductions in GHG emissions or petroleum use rather than specific technologies.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)