Concerned but clueless

June 7, 2007
I really didn't know much about the Union of Concerned Scientists back in 1980 when it predicted the world had entered "a period of chronic energy shortages."

Leland Teschler, Editor

The ensuing 20+ years of low gasoline prices made it easy to forget about that screwball pronouncement. But one wonders how UCS, which calls itself the reliable source for independent scientific analysis, managed to botch that 1980 prediction so badly.

Insights into the matter come from another issue UCS recently addressed, the use of antibiotics in farm animals. It claimed to have estimated that 70% of antibiotics used in the U.S. are fed to farm animals. It turns out, however, that there was no analysis, let alone scientific analysis, that went into this number. It was just a guess made without knowing such key facts as the total amount of antibiotics used annually in the U.S., or how much of it goes into animal agriculture. You might say that though UCS claims to be an organization of scientists, it doesn't seem to use rigorous methods in reaching the conclusions on which it makes public decrees.

That brings us to a recent conversation UCS Clean-Vehicle Program Head David Friedman had with GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. UCS had claimed automakers were ignoring gasoline-saving technology which is readily available. It further claimed GM could build a minivan that could reduce tailpipe emissions by 40%for a net extra cost of only $300/vehicle. Lutz pooh-poohed the idea that automakers were holding back on the use of any technology that boosts fuel economy.

It is clear from press reports that the meeting between Lutz and Friedman didn't go anywhere. It is also easy to see why. UCS bases its assertions about fuel economy on what it calls the Vanguard, a minivan design it devised with off-the-shelf engine, transmission, and fuel systems. It says that installing the Vanguard package of existing technologies fleetwide could significantly reduce global-warming pollution for all car and truck classes.

But there is a problem with the Vanguard. It is not really a "design," as UCS says. UCS has never tried to build one. Vanguard is really just a paper study consisting of not much more than a list of features. No wonder, then, if Bob Lutz was unimpressed with it.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is a long road between features on paper and a production vehicle that both appeals to consumers and which can sell at a profit. But perhaps this is not obvious to "scientists" doing paper studies without worries about million-vehicle recalls in the event of a screwup.

GM and other automakers are not standing still on fuel economy. Details coming out about the two-mode hybrid gas-electric Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon make that clear. They'll consume about 25% less gas on average than conventional 5.3-liter V8 versions. And these are real vehicles designed by engineers, not theoretical studies by scientists.

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