The National Transportation Research Center develops technology that informs tailpipe emissions standards
In a laboratory nestled at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains, the federal government is quietly working to improve the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks.
That’s in contradiction to President Trump, who is overseeing a freeze on efficiency standards beginning in 2022. In the real world, that means cars would travel 30 mpg under Trump’s plan, instead of 36 mpg.
The National Transportation Research Center (NTRC) is a short jaunt from Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s main campus, known for its pioneering work on nuclear weapons during World War II. The pale, blue silhouettes of mountains rise in the distance.
Inside the lab, it’s like a beehive. Researchers wearing goggles hunch over complex machinery. They’re busy studying nearly every part of a vehicle, from the engine to the exhaust.
Despite their different specialties, the researchers are committed to the same goal: getting vehicles to travel farther on a single tank of gas.
That might not be a snug fit with the president’s view of America, in which more coal, oil and gas are produced to achieve a dominant energy economy. Researchers here tend not to talk about politics.
EPA and the Department of Transportation have joint jurisdiction over the clean car standards. Compliance with those rules is overseen by EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Less known is the role of Department of Energy facilities like the NTRC, which helps to advance technologies that inform the stringency of the standards.
Staffers here aren’t authorized to discuss political issues like Trump’s regulatory rollback on cars. Instead, researchers interviewed for this story implied that the move hasn’t affected their day-to-day work.
“What motivates us to come to work every day is of course to do the science that can enable clean and sustainable energy,” said Jim Parks, group leader for emissions and catalysis research at the lab. “So that’s going to drive my research, regardless of the regulations and the things being debated there.
“At the end of the day, we know that it will take research and development to enable these more fuel-efficient vehicles and these cleaner vehicles,” he added. “So we’re going to put in that work to do that.”
There’s another factor at play, too: market forces. The researchers recognize that if they create the technology for better fuel efficiency, automakers will be interested in it. The companies still sell vehicles in countries with stringent efficiency rules, particularly China and India.
“I haven’t read the rule that came out. We’ve talked about this some in terms of how it might affect our work, of course,” said Brian West, group leader for fuels and engine research at the NTRC.
“But the whole world wants better fuel economy,” he said. “The manufacturers that build cars here build cars all over the world.”
MYTHS VS. FACTS
The NTRC is responsible for running fueleconomy.gov, the U.S. government’s online clearinghouse for information about fuel economy.
The site offers tips to consumers for getting better gas mileage, such as by driving less aggressively. The tips are based on experiments at the lab.
“For fueleconomy.gov, we try to inform consumers about things that you can do,” West said. “Like don’t drive around with three sets of golf clubs in your trunk. Every 100 pounds will cost you about 1 percent fuel economy.”
The Trump administration has altered many government webpages since January 2017, including by removing references to climate change (Climatewire, Jan. 10). But fueleconomy.gov remains largely intact.