Navigant Research Blog

How Can the United States Pay for Road Upkeep?

— July 17, 2014

More vehicles throng U.S. roads each year, expansion necessary to support them and with less money to fund road repairs.  The root of the problem is that road construction funds are largely derived from taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, and U.S. consumption of both is declining and will continue to decline.  The increasing fuel economy of new vehicles combined with rising penetrations of alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) is having a marked impact on U.S. fuel demand.

In the upcoming report Global Fuel Consumption, Navigant Research forecasts that liquid fuels (gasoline, diesel, and biofuels) consumed by U.S. vehicles will decrease from approximately 160 billion gallons in 2014 to around 104 billion gallons in 2035.  Meanwhile, forecasts from the Navigant Research reports Light Duty Vehicles and Medium and Heavy Duty Vehicles indicate that the U.S. vehicle fleet will grow from approximately 250 million to nearly 270 million in 2027 before beginning a slow decline.

More Per Gallon

If the status quo funding mechanism is maintained, annual federal gasoline and diesel tax revenue will decline from current levels of about $30 billion to near $20 billion in 2035.  Meanwhile, over the same time, the fleet of vehicles in use will grow by 10 million.  However, in the near term, the federal Highway Trust Fund and Mass Transit Fund are headed for insolvency before the end of the year.

A number of short-term funding options have been proposed that will likely push a decision on a long-term solution out past the November mid-term elections.  However, one long-term solution emerged last month from two U.S. senators who proposed raising the federal gasoline and diesel tax by $0.06 per gallon over 2 years and then indexing the tax to inflation for following years.  The tax has been stagnant since 1993, at $.184/gallon of gasoline and $.244/gallon of diesel.  Raising it would probably be the easiest long-term solution to implement, since the machinery for tax collection is already in place.

U.S. Federal Gasoline/Diesel Tax Revenue and Vehicles in Use, United States: 2014-2035

(Source: Navigant Research)

What this proposal has in ease of implementation, though, it lacks in political appeal and fairness.  Taxes are a bitter pill for any Republican member to swallow, and pushing through a hike on gasoline and diesel, no matter how small or sensible, is likely to be impossible.  Additionally, as the tax stands now and the proposal will maintain, motorists who drive newer fuel efficient vehicles pay less tax, and those who drive AFVs pay no tax per mile driven, despite that they are using the same roads as owners of less fuel efficient conventional vehicles who bear more of the tax burden.  As the tax was designed to make those who use the road pay for the road, the above scenario is an unintended consequence to the advantage of alternative fuel and fuel efficient vehicle owners.

Dollars Per Mile

In early 2009, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood recommended that the federal government should look into a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax.  The VMT tax would clock vehicle owners’ mileage and then tax them on a per-mile basis.  While this solution would not be easy to implement, it would be a fair way of collecting taxes in line with the original purpose of federal gasoline and diesel taxes.  It could also be used as a tool to manage traffic along specifically congested corridors.

Despite the suitability of a VMT tax, it is unlikely it will emerge as a legitimate policy option in the near term, due to a lack of political support and a tested method for implementation.  Rather, owners of older conventional vehicles will likely pay more at the pump – or traffic is only going to get worse.

 

The Humblest, Most Popular EV on the Planet

— July 15, 2014

Neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) are a less famous sub-segment of the more familiar class of battery electric vehicles (BEVs), such as the Nissan LEAF.  NEVs are low-speed EVs that are limited to a top speed of 25 mph and to roads that have maximum speed limits of 35 mph; they usually take the form of golf-cart-style vehicles.  Although they get less attention, and advertising, than their larger, faster cousins, NEVs are the most popular type of EVs in use worldwide.  Fleets, including airports, local governments, university campuses, retirement communities, and the military, are the principal users of the technology.  Navigant Research estimates that fleets account for at least 75% of the global NEV marketplace.

 

 (Source: GEM)

The primary market driver for NEVs is the low production cost and purchase price of the vehicle.  Most NEVs are priced between $8,000 and $14,000, compared to $28,980 for a full-sized BEV like the Nissan LEAF (excluding incentives).  The operating costs of NEVs are also very low, since they use electricity to charge batteries that are typically much smaller than those found in BEVs.

Half a Million Strong

While NEVs are affordable, and particularly convenient in fleet applications, they have their flaws.  Being limited to streets with a maximum speed limit of 35 mph is enough to deter the majority of private consumers, who expect full access to all roads.  Combined with poor performance in snow and cold weather, safety concerns (NEVs usually have less safety equipment than full-speed vehicles), and short battery ranges (25-30 miles per charge), the market for NEVs will remain with niche fleets for the foreseeable future.  Nonetheless, this has proved successful, as significantly more NEVs are in use worldwide than BEVs.  Navigant Research estimates that globally 229,166 light duty BEVs were in use by the end of 2013, less than half the number of NEVs, at 542,134.

As battery prices come down and gasoline prices continue to rise, NEVs will likely increase their market share within fleet applications.  Meanwhile, some companies are also looking into using NEVs for carsharing programs.  In this scenario, the vehicles would be used mostly for connecting travel purposes – from homes to public transit stations, for example, or from stations to offices.  Additionally, NEVs are also considered to be the frontrunners for autonomous vehicle technologies – mainly because low-speed EVs are safer and more suitable than full-sized vehicles for testing these experimental technologies.

 

Japan Doubles Down on Fuel Cell Vehicles

— July 13, 2014

Two recent announcements out of Japan have dramatically cut the price that Japanese drivers will pay for a fuel cell car.  Toyota unveiled its completed design for the fuel cell vehicle (FCV) it will put on the market in 2015.  More importantly, the company revealed the price would be around ¥7 million, or $70,000.  This is a big drop from the $100,000 price tag floated, alarmingly, a few years ago.

A day earlier, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe called for subsidies of FCVs beginning next year.  A part of the government’s economic growth strategy, these incentives reflect the hydrogen energy roadmap adopted by Japan’s trade ministry.

As described in my Fuel Cell Vehicles report, I’ve long said that the two impediments to fuel cell cars taking hold in the market are cost and infrastructure.  Automakers like Honda and Daimler have already shown that the technology works, resolving early issues such as cold-start capability.  FCVs will also deliver on the key performance characteristics that make them intriguing, as compared to battery electric vehicles: range and refueling.  The Toyota FCV will have a 420-mile range and refuel in 3 minutes.

The Post-Fukushima Strategy

For longtime fuel cell technology followers, I am stating the obvious.  The potential benefits of fuel cells in transportation have been well-understood for years.  Honda, General Motors (GM), Daimler, Hyundai, and Toyota have all shown they can make cars that meet those performance targets.  Nevertheless, in the U.S. media, the perception persists that fuel cells were made obsolete by the successful introduction of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs).  In Navigant Research’s recent white paper, The Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Industries: 10 Trends to Watch, I noted that the U.S. media would continue to tie these two technologies together – and would misunderstand the rationale for pursuing them both.  Sure enough, this article asserts that the Japanese government’s goal is to crush Tesla.

Not quite.  The Japanese government’s plan is to promote technologies and fuels that will help ensure the country never has another experience like the Fukushima disaster in 2011.  The Japanese government also wants to grow the economy by supporting domestic industries.

The Market Will Decide

To take a phrase from President Obama, Japan has taken an “all of the above” approach in pursuing these two goals.  Nissan and Toyota have done well in the PEV market.  But fuel cells offer an alternative for consumers who may find that a plug-in car doesn’t meet their driving needs.

Japan has also made a huge commitment to fuel cells that provide residential power.  The country’s residential fuel cell program has supported the deployment of over 42,000 combined heat and power (CHP) fuel cells in Japan.  Manufactured by Toshiba, Panasonic, and Eneos Celltech, these residential units are sold through gas companies like Tokyo Gas.  After Fukushima, when the plant’s backup diesel generators were rendered useless and employees scavenged car batteries to power monitoring equipment, the Japanese government set a requirement that the fuel cells be capable of starting up when the power is off.  While these fuel cells employ a different technology from automotive fuel cells, the CHP program demonstrates both Japan’s commitment to pursuing whatever technology the country believes will support its energy resiliency (utilizing domestic expertise) and its willingness to support that technology in its early market introduction.

Japan has already committed to building 100 hydrogen fueling stations in key metro areas.  The country’s energy companies are partnering in that effort.  Note that the Japanese government is also supporting the automaker deployment of 12,000 charging stations in Japan.  Again, it’s not an either/or prospect for Japan.  The announcement on the FCV subsidies will put the cars at a price point where they might have a chance in the market.  If the infrastructure is in place to make fueling reasonably convenient, then it will be up to consumers to decide whether FCVs will succeed in the market or not.  Success will be measured over many years, not in 18 months.

 

Automakers Go for MPG Records

— July 10, 2014

Automakers have had some poor publicity recently, with safety recalls and financial penalties imposed for exaggerating fuel efficiency performance.  In the United States, Ford was forced to apologize and offer customers compensation when its vehicles did not deliver the promised number of miles per gallon.  Honda and Hyundai suffered a similar fate in 2012 in the United States, and Hyundai and Ssangyong have also recently incurred the wrath of legislators in their home country of South Korea.

Fuel economy has risen to the top of the list of factors that influence new car purchases, even in North America, where historically cheaper fuel has made miles per gallon a low priority for consumers, until recently.  Thus, many manufacturers have shifted their marketing emphasis from 0-to-60 miles per hour (mph) times to average miles per gallon (mpg) under standardized testing.

Taking the Long Way

The big problem with standardized tests is they don’t represent anyone’s actual driving, so the prospect of achieving the stated figures is unlikely.   Most people have bad driving habits (from a fuel economy perspective), such as hard acceleration and braking, driving with under-inflated tires, and carrying excess weight around without realizing that all of these factors affect how much fuel is used.   Others make it their life’s work to squeeze the most miles from a gallon of fuel, and there are competitions for those who want to be the best.

Mercedes periodically attempts long-distance driving feats with its production cars.  In July 2005, three standard Mercedes-Benz E 320 CDI cars drove from Laredo, Texas on the Mexican border to Tallahassee, Florida, covering 1,039 miles on a single tank (80 liters/21.1 gallons) of fuel.  This was part of Daimler’s introduction of diesel vehicles to the U.S. market.  In 2012, a Volkswagen Passat TDI made it 1,626 miles from Houston, Texas to Sterling, Virginia, again on a single tank of fuel.

Out of Africa

Now, a Mercedes-Benz E 300 BlueTEC HYBRID has driven the 1,223 miles from Tangier, in Northern Africa, to the United Kingdom in 27 hours, arriving at the Goodwood Festival of Speed with an estimated 100 miles of range still available.  The BlueTEC averaged 73.6 mpg on the journey.  This type of demonstration shows what can be accomplished in a production vehicle in driving conditions that included heavy rain, intense heat, rush hour traffic jams, and significant elevation changes.

This sort of feat is one of the biggest challenges facing electric vehicle sales.  Although few people would actually want to tackle a journey of over 1,000 miles on a single tank of fuel, many people are happy that their vehicles can do that, just in case.  And few would want to undertake such a journey where they have to stop every 100 miles to recharge for a couple of hours, even if there was a network of charging stations in place.

 

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