EPA Administrator E. Scott Pruitt (left), General Motors CEO Mary Barra, President Donald J. Trump, Ford CEO Mark Fields, FCA US CEO Sergio Marchionne, and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao tour a vehicle staging area prior to a Trump speech at the Willow Run plant near Detroit, Michigan.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

President Donald Trump has ordered federal agencies to reopen consideration of fuel economy rules for model years 2022 through 2025, potentially unraveling the 54.5mpg limits former President Barack Obama tried to finalize in his final days in office.

Filings from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) call for those agencies to reopen the mid-cycle review for Obama-era corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) rules. Early in Obama’s terms, automakers agreed to high mileage targets – 54.5mpg by 2025 nominally, but with credits for air conditioning refrigerant and other changes, the real-world figure is closer to 45mpg. However, automakers insisted on a review to gauge progress and to see if the hybrid, electric vehicle, and small car strategies envisioned in the regulatory plan were resonating with car buyers.

“We’re going to work on the CAFE standards so you can make cars in America again,” Trump promised a crowd of cheering autoworkers at General Motors’ Willow Run plant near Detroit, Michigan. “We want to be the car capital of the world again, and we will be.”

In a joint filing, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and EPA Administrator E. Scott Pruitt say they will reopen consideration of final fuel economy rules, sticking to an April 2018 deadline to finalize standards. Late last year, Obama’s EPA issued a final determination that it had heard enough from industry groups and that 54.5mpg was achievable. That allowed the EPA to open the final comments process, making rules official on Jan. 17, 2017, days before Trump took office and more than a year before a determination was due.

Unlike other Obama-era regulations, Trump can’t simply cancel the fuel economy rules. His action will restart an existing regulatory process instead of creating all-new rules. Left in place will be standards through the 2021 model year, so even without a policy change, fuel economy should continue to improve.

Reopening debate will let environmental groups argue that standards should remain high, and allow automakers to urge a lower number. Environmental groups plan to challenge the reopening, and they will likely sue to block any changes proposed by Trump’s administration.

Shannon Baker-Branstetter, policy counsel for Consumer Reports magazine publisher Consumers Union, says, “The EPA finalized the standards after a thorough study of costs and benefits. A decision to withdraw the standards is nonsensical, as it would merely funnel more money to oil companies at consumers’ expense and halt the progress that can be made in both savings for consumers and vehicle efficiency.” www.epa.gov; www.transportation.gov; www.whitehouse.gov.

Volvo and Uber are collaborating to develop driverless cars such as the XC90 crossover pictured.

California proposes driver-free autonomous vehicle testing

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) proposed regulations to establish a path for testing and future deployment of fully autonomous vehicles without drivers. The state has the most autonomous vehicle tests of any state, but regulations now require those vehicles to have drivers present, even if they’re not operating the car.

California Transportation Agency Secretary Brian P. Kelly says the proposed “rules continue our leadership with this emerging technology. These rules protect public safety, promote innovation, and lay out the path for future testing and deployment of driverless technology. This rulemaking is the next step in working with stakeholders to get this right.”

The proposed regulations were published in the Office of Administrative Law’s California Regulatory Notice Register on March 10, 2017, and mark the start of a 45-day public comment period, which ends April 24, 2017.

Regulations to test autonomous vehicles with a driver have been in effect since September 2014, and 27 manufacturers hold autonomous vehicle test permits. www.dmv.ca.gov

Senate subcommittee discusses commercial truck safety

The U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security held hearings in March to discuss how to improve commercial vehicle safety on highways. The March 14, 2017, “Continuing to Improve Truck Safety on our Nation’s Highways” hearings included testimony from safety experts, truck fleet operators, and regulators.

The discussion addressed advanced safety technology and equipment. Chairwoman Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, said, “Commercial vehicle operators have made significant investments in safety. According to estimates by the American Trucking Associations, carriers are making a $9.5 billion annual investment in safety through expenditures on driver training and screening, safety incentive pay, advanced technologies, and compliance. Innovation and technology can also serve as key tools for advancing safety.”

She added that one trucking company reported a 69% reduction in rear-end accidents by using radar-based collision-mitigation systems. Other safety technologies gaining in popularity with manufacturers are blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning systems, and adaptive cruise control systems.

Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), said his organization has noted a steep increase in fatal accidents involving passenger cars hitting or being hit by commercial trucks. Most of that increase, he noted, is from the increase in shipping traffic, but it’s a safety hazard nonetheless.

“Several safety features showed promise in reducing crash risk among the large trucks in the study,” Lund said. “Antilock braking systems, which have been required since the late 1990s, reduced the risk of crashing by 65%. Benefits were also found for electronic stability control (ESC) and roll-stability control, electronic logging devices, and speed limiters.”

Based on an analysis of crashes from 2004 to 2008, IIHS officials estimate that ESC, roll-stability control, forward collision warning/mitigation, blind spot detection, and lane departure warning/prevention systems combined could prevent or mitigate 107,000 police-reported crashes each year, representing 28% of all crashes involving large trucks. The technology could prevent or mitigate as many as 12,000 nonfatal injury large truck crashes and 835 fatal large truck crashes each year. https://goo.gl/uuvP8V; www.iihs.org