Study considers auto industry and consumer behavior in reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Rochester Institute of Technology wins $2 million National Science Foundation grant

Tougher environmental policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. transportation sector will affect more than the production of cars and light trucks. Changes throughout the automotive industry will impact consumer behavior and the environment in uncertain ways.

In an effort to predict the ripple effect of environmental policies, researchers James Winebrake, from Rochester Institute of Technology, and Steven Skerlos, from the University of Michigan, are creating a computer-based program for policymakers and analysts to evaluate the impact of future scenarios.

Funded by $2 million from the National Science Foundation's Materials Use: Science, Engineering and Society (MUSES) program, the five-year study will build and link computer models to understand the consumer and industry response to policy decisions, and how the state of the market impacts the environment. The software program will enable analysts to predict the complicated market dynamic between consumers and producers by constructing scenarios.

For instance, a scenario may consider an increase in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, one of the major tools or regulations government can use to force car companies to produce cleaner, more efficient vehicles.

"For 20 years the standards have remained flat until Bush's recent small increase," says Winebrake, chair of Science Technology and Society/Public Policy at RIT.

He adds: "If the government passes higher CAFE standards, how will the auto industry respond to using new technology and producing new vehicles? How will consumers respond to the safety, performance and aesthetics of these new vehicles? How will those decisions play out in the market and with what environmental impact?"

These scenarios also will consider such variables as the amount of production material necessary to meet new regulations as well as the environmental impact associated with the whole production of the vehicle, its use and disposal. Predicting the life cycle of a vehicle can illuminate unintended consequences in policymaking when one action negatively affects something else.

Such a scenario might be that car owners choose to keep their old vehicles longer, producing more pollution for a longer time. Or, perhaps, the production of cleaner cars would introduce environmental problems that would make it a dirtier alternative. Considering intended and unintended environmental impacts will give analysts valuable information they didn't have before.

"Right now policy analysts are working in the dark with greenhouse gas emissions," Winebrake says. "They lack the tools to effectively track the impact of policies."

The interdisciplinary study will draw upon economics, environmental science, manufacturing issues, public policy and software engineering using advanced computer modeling techniques. In addition to RIT and UM, the team will include researchers from Northeastern University and the University of California at Berkeley.

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Internationally recognized as a leader in computing, imaging, technology, fine and applied arts, and education of the deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology enrolls 15,500 students in more than 340 undergraduate and graduate programs. Its cooperative education program is one of the oldest and largest in the nation.

For the past decade, U.S. News and World Report has ranked RIT as one of the nation's leading comprehensive universities. RIT is also included in The Fiske Guide to Colleges, as well as Barron's Best Buys in Education.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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