Energy NOT COOL: Oy vey iz mir! MIT Focused on BAU, not BTB

Amid all of the fascinating things out there on energy issues, there are many that will increase energy illiteracy, that don’t merit the kilobytes wasted on them, that are, well, truly Energy NOT COOL.  Tonight inaugurates a new series that will, occasionally, draw attention to one of these contributions to hindering meaningful debate on energy issues.

When it comes to the future of America’s automotive fleet, it is clear that at least part of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology can’t get its mind around the reality of change in the transportation system.  They are focused on Business As Usual (BAU) rather than the Business To Be (BTB).

Factor of Two: Halving the Fuel Consumption of New US Automobiles by 2035 was recently published by MIT, a brand that carries a tremendous amount of credibility.  When it comes to technology, MIT is like that old EF Hutton ad:  

When MIT Talks Technology, People Listen

Sadly, however, this talk on auto technology could easily mislead rather than enlighten the discussion about the future and our future possibilities.

Some quick background
With this report, MIT is stating that it is possible to double the CAFE standard by 2035 (28 years from now) from today’s roughly 21 mpg to 42 by then.  But, it will be a tough slog, according to these MIT researchers.

Thus, while it is technically feasible to halve the fuel consumption of new vehicles in 2035, aggressive changes are needed and additional costs will be incurred.

We have a tough road to haul, but we can do it …

Well, no wonder the auto industry is raising concerns about the Energy Bill’s call for 35 mpg by 2020. Less than half the time and more than half the targeted mileage increase that MIT is telling us will be difficult to achieve.

This sound serious.

Should we be concerned?

After all, this MIT-branded report is letting us know that the costs will be high and that return on investment perhaps uncertain.

The additional cost of achieving this factor-of-two target would be about 20% more than a baseline scenario where fuel consumption does not change from today’s values, although these additional costs would be recouped within 4 to 5 years from the resulting fuel savings.

Okay, we might (with tough work) be able to double the average fuel economy at relatively high cost that will require 4-5 years, on average, to recoup those high costs.

This really is not sounding like good news.

The rest of the story?

In Factor of Two: Halving the Fuel Consumption of New US Automobiles by 2035, the MIT researchers made a series of assumptions that are, well, simply atrocious:

  • Gasoline at $1.85 for the next 30 years.

Hmmm …

At my local gas station, gasoline is well above $3.00.  Noone should be surprised at over $4 gallon gasoline for next driving season.  I, not just for one, don’t expect to see below $2 gasoline ever again.

  • That, come 2035, small trucks / McSUVs will represent the same percentage of the personal vehicle fleet as today.

Hmmm … at $1.85, I guess I can understand making this assumption, maybe, perhaps, well, hopefully not. But at $5, 7, 10 per gallon?  There will be no change, according to this analysis, of the class, style, etc of personal transport that Americans will be buying.  

  • Not including emergent options, such as plug-in-hybrid vehicles (PHEVs), in the analysis.

Control the cursing … control …

When considering various ways of achieving the target of halving fuel consumption in vehicles, we have chosen to focus on options that are essentially available today, and which do not require significant changes to our fueling infrastructure. For this reason, plug-in hybrid electric, battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will not be considered, although they are potentially important technologies for realizing vehicle fuel consumption reductions.

None of us will, evidently, be seriously interested in or able to move to a Venture One, plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), or any one of the new options coming down the pike.  No, guess they don’t expect any of us to want to buy any one of these fuel-efficient options.  

While there is value to the work, these assumptions are so laughable that it is difficult to take any of it seriously.  The problem is, well, MIT is a powerful brand.  After all,

When MIT Talks Technology, People Listen

And, people will listen to work like this even though the fundamental assumptions are beyond absurd.  How many, when confront with MIT speaking out on fuel efficiency options will simply accept the conclusions with questioning what stands behind them.  

When MIT Talks Technology …

Let me pass a hat tip to Lou Grinzo at the excellent Cost of Energy (and occasionally here) for bringing attention to this. Lou has written on this report.  He concluded:

All sarcasm aside, this is one of the most ridiculous and extreme examples of linear extrapolation based on bad assumptions I’ve seen in some time. If it were just one bad study from some no-name outfit I wouldn’t much care. But this one is from MIT, funded by Environmental Defense (previously known as the Environmental Defense Fund), which I thought, and will still continue to think until proved otherwise, were some of the good guys in the energy and environmental fights. If you can enlighten me on that point, please do.

So I’m stumped as to how really smart people could think this was the right way to do this study. But more to the point, I’m aghast at how this report might be misused by some of the more Inhofe-esque lawmakers and their advisers.


Yes, Lou, oy vey iz mir

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