Fuel economy, alternative fuel cars dominate auto show talks

D.C. is no Detroit, meaning the nation’s capital is not typically the place where new car models are unveiled. But being near the seat of power helps frame the Washington Auto Show, which runs through Sunday, as the best place to hash out the fine points of government policy.

“We’ve had an unparalleled opportunity to construct a platform for the industry to get together and have critically important conversations about where we’re headed,” said Gerard Murphy, president of the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association, the auto show sponsor. “It’s an opportunity to vet a lot of what’s in the pipeline of lawmakers and regulators.”

Before kicking off the 10-day show, organizers held two days’ worth of meetings with auto and government officials to discuss some of the issues at hand.

Fuel economy standards

Dealers and manufacturers are uneasy about the Obama administration’s proposal to raise fuel efficiency standards for new cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon from 35.4 by 2025. Critics say the effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions could limit growth of new sales by making vehicles too expensive.

“Automakers must continue to work with lawmakers to bring affordable advanced technology to the market,” said Michael Stanton, president and chief executive of Global Automakers, which represents 15 international auto manufacturers. “Our members are investing in the technologies to cut back on emissions, but the proposed standards don’t match the reality of the market.”

While Stanton favors the long lead time built into the proposal, he said the government must assess the pace of technology advances, fuel costs and consumer acceptance at the halfway point of the deadline.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Administration are holding hearings on the proposal, with the final rules anticipated to take effect by the end of this summer.

Alternative fuel cars

“We have to wean ourselves off our dependence of foreign oil and look for legitimate alternative fuel sources, whether its electricity, hydrogen cells or some combination of gas and electric,” said Robert Fogarty, chairman of the Washington Auto Show.

Hybrids and electric cars continue to dominate the conversation around fuel efficiency, but panelists at the show’s policy summit, held last Wednesday at the Cannon Building on Capitol Hill, agreed that cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells deserved more government support.

Stanton said the technology for fuel cells is “coming along rapidly,” but a vast network of refueling stations is needed. Storing the highly explosive hydrogen is a challenge, but one Stanton said could be overcome with the government working with industry on a solution.

Toyota Motor North America’s Chief Communications Officer James Wiseman said the company expects to have a fuel-cell vehicle ready by 2015. “Currently there is no infrastructure for fuel cells, but we are all working on it,” he said. “But that is the trick with the government. The difficult part is picking where you make your investment.”

Danielle Douglas covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.
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