automobile fuel economy

Key to pollution reduction may be making more vintage cars

A well tuned engine produces less pollutants.
I spent most of the Labor Day weekend working on my VW.

Certainly not the pursuit many would choose. But getting the thing back on the road one of my over-riding goals. The next one is cracking that novel. Can't do one without finishing the other. At least, that's the way my mind works.

The engine's back in. The wiring harness is replaced. The engine-insulating tarboard is installed. Rust has been painstakingly removed from the floorboards and Por-15, the rust-murdering paint, applied. The interior heater hoses have been replaced (finally figured out how to source them). I figure the 1974 Super Beetle has several more major weekends before I can haul it off to somebody to put the final touches on the electrical and I can hear it roar to life.

Then it's off to my friend, another class of 1979, in downtown Fresno, Calif. for fresh paint.

All said, this will be a three- or four-year project. But we car guys do what we do. We love this stuff. I'd enjoy nothing better than pulling my bug into the Madera VW show and rubbing shoulders with more aging air-cooled enthusiasts.

Truly, this car is more sculpture than gas-burner. The NOx and related pollutants coming from its dual exhausts have been curtailed significantly.

Yet, that's exactly where many of our current vehicles are headed.  And that may be a good thing for the environment. Economics and regulations will be removing most of the older vehicles on the road that don't have support from nostalgic collectors like myself to restore and repurpose them as spares or show cars.

Reducing emissions

It's hard to imagine the discontinued Ford Excursion finding many such fans. Or the AMC Pacer. At one point, I day dreamed of taking a rocket launcher to that particular model. But the Edsel will remain. So will the 1955-57 Chevy and a host of others.

In California, truckers who own older trucks will have to either buy newer ones or get their existing rigs retrofit with filters to reduce NOx and particulates. State laws will be kicking all the old rigs without 2010 standards off the road. The idea is to get rid the dirtiest trucks in the next couple of years.

New heavy duty semi trucks, with nameplates like Kenworth, Freightliner, Peterbilt and Volvo, have engines that produce 80 percent fewer pollutants than many of the models now on the road. Their engines are more efficient and far cleaner, leading to cleaner air in the transportation corridors on which they transport most of the nation's consumer goods, agricultural materials and manufactured products.

Clean air is the result

Once the old trucks are retired, the rewards in fresher air, especially in the smog-laden San Joaquin Valley, will be evident. However, the people who own the existing older trucks aren't flocking to new and improved models. A new truck costs about $140,000, a used one with a cleaner engine that meets 2007 standards, costs about $80,000.

That's big money to an independent operator who works as many days as he or she can hauling everything from petroleum to corn. Many of them in California have trouble paying their Department of Motor Vehicles registrations on a yearly basis, opting for the monthly option. And shipments aren't guaranteed. Meanwhile, fuel costs are going up.

But change is coming. I work with the Proposition 1B program, which helps truckers comply with California's new clean air laws. The grants I work with either give truckers a grant to buy a new truck or reconfigure an existing one. The money not only helps the truckers but also the economy. Dealers benefit, too.

Consumers adapt

Truckers aren't the only drivers facing change. Consumers must also adapt to changing conditions. Fuel prices and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will prove a steady influence in coming years.

Back in 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the EPA clamped down on national fuel economy standards under the Clean Air Act. The rules, dubbed the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, program, established increasingly stringent fuel economy standards for 2012 through 2016 model-year vehicles.

The rule requires automakers to improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 5 percent a year, with the goal of reaching an average 34.1 mpg for the industry for model year 2016.

Consumers may be paying attention. More likely they're sick of paying for 25 gallons every three days to keep a beastly SUV filled up. Check out some of the used-car lots. See any little cars? Here in Fresno/San Joaquin Valley area, I see a lot of pretty nice Chevy Suburbans for decent prices.

Small car sales increase

August 2012 showed an increase in sales for smaller automobiles and trucks with domestic manufacturers posting double-digit increases over the same period a year earlier. A look at analysis done by the Washington Post shows gains for Ford with the redesigned Escape, Chrysler may have a hit with its resurrected Dart (good friend and motorhead Scott Selph bought one in Oklahoma City) and Chevy did well with various crossovers.

Volkswagen's sale's increased 62.5 percent, mostly on the back of the new Passat but I'm wondering about the redesigned bug. Toyota also saw a big swing upward with a 40.2 percent increase.

Interesting. Perhaps fuel consumption will actually drop. Certainly these new vehicles will make a difference, cleaning the air by spewing far less pollution.

But overall, don't expect much change in the overall direction of fuel use. Vintage car enthusiasts will continue to pursue their hobbies, keeping a pretty significant sector of craftsmen and women in business and a bunch of people happy in their garages. Of course, this old car crew will continue to be a pretty vocal proponent into maintaining a supply of gasoline.

And hopefully, I'll get the bug back on the road. My son is 15 and thinks it's the coolest rig on the road. He's got good taste.

Feds plan to crawl further up your tailpipe

It's starting to look worse for my 1974 superbeetle.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled a plan today that likely will result in new restrictions on automobile exhaust.

And just when it felt safe to buy fuel at less than $3 per gallon.

The agencies said they will begin developing tougher greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards for passenger cars and trucks built in 2017 through 2025, which "will build on the success of the first phase of the national program covering cars from model years 2012-2016."

The EPA and DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in April announced that they cranked fuel economy standards up to about 34.1 mpg for the combined industry-wide fleet for model year 2016. Starting in 2012, automakers must improve overall mileage and emissions by about 5 percent a year.

The news item is that standards could reach as high as 62 mpg by 2025, but that's if and only if the auto industry makes improvements of 6 percent a year. EPA's report provided a range between 47 to 62 mpg in 2025 "if the industry achieved all of the increases through fuel economy improvements."

“Continuing the successful clean cars program will accelerate the environmental benefits, health protections and clean technology advances over the long-term,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in a statement.

The idea is to reduce the country's addiction to oil. A noble goal. Jackson also said the measure also is intended to encourage automakers to innovate.

Few details were provided. The measure follows directives issued in May to propose more strict regulations on the nation's gas-guzzling fleet of passenger cars and trucks. The effort involves the California Air Resources Board to develop a technical assessment.

An updated analysis of possible future standards is expected by Nov. 30 after agencies conduct further studies and meetings to determine an "appropriate" level of standards.

Officials said new standards could be proposed within a year.

Whatever happens, new regulations will again target fuel consumption. Electric cars are expected to make a big splash in coming years, but the majority of Americans will continue to cling to their gas-burning traditions for reliable transportation.

Officials estimate the program reduces CO2 by about 960 million metric tons and conserves about 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of the vehicles regulated.

At the time of the EPA's release of the new fuel economy standards, Jeremy Korzeniewski of Autoblog Green put it in perspective. "Naturally, all of this is going to cost some extra dough," he wrote. "If the Feds are right, automakers will spend $51.5 billion over the next five years putting the standards into effect and the average price of a new car will rise by $985 by 2016."

However, he also said fuel savings will put an extra $3,000 in consumers' pockets over the life of the vehicle.

The question I have is simple. What about older cars? A rough search of opinions online turned up a number of perspectives. Some believe regulators feel that most older rolling stock will be scrapped and replaced. That's understandable.

However, there's a big contingent that restores old rigs. Emissions controls are expensive and difficult to apply to older models, not to mention how they can be performance killers. I did read one post from a classic car restorer who championed the use of some modern advances.

Stay tuned. And just to be clear, my bug is sitting in the backyard awaiting an electrical harness transplant. It creates zero emissions.