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Stricter Emissions Stalk the Displays at Paris Auto Show

 / Updated  / Source: The Detroit Bureau
Senior auto execs at the Paris Auto Show are concerned about proposed stricter emission standards in Europe.
Senior auto execs at the Paris Auto Show are concerned about proposed stricter emission standards in Europe.BENOIT TESSIER / Reuters

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There’s a specter haunting the Paris Auto Show.

Amid the glittering metal and chrome of new models and concept cars, senior automotive executives are fretting that European regulators may sharpen already-strict vehicles emissions standards.

Even though manufacturers say they could meet the rules some clean air advocates have been proposing, tighter standards could be “fatal” for the auto industry, executives say.

Spending billions of dollars up front for uncertain returns is not an acceptable way to do business, warned Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn. "It’s too early for concrete targets. Taking the third step before the first would be fatal,” he warned, urging policymakers to work together with carmakers to develop electric cars and plug-ins.

The cost could be substantial, especially for smaller carmakers, they warn. And of equal concern, industry leaders question whether consumers would be willing to accept the potential compromises or pay the higher prices they’d almost certainly face.

Supporters of the higher standards say they are needed amid rising concern about climate change and the effects of fossils fuels on the environment. They also say that automakers have complained about more stringent standards before, but have still met the challenge.

Europe already has enacted some of the world’s toughest clean air standards. Unlike the United States, which focuses on fuel economy, the EU has been targeting carbon dioxide emissions in an effort to reduce global warming. The current standard will be cut by about a quarter, to a mere 95 grams of CO2 for every kilometer of driving by 2021, roughly equivalent to what a car meeting America's 54.5 mpg fuel economy standard would have to meet in 2025.

But Brussels-based regulators are talking about trimming that to just 65 grams by 2025, which would be the equivalent of getting 84 miles per gallon. To put that into perspective, even the Toyota Prius today manages to deliver just 50 mpg.

New emissions standards, in general, are “one of the toughest issues we face.”

“That’s why I worry,” said Winterkorn. Speaking at an industry conference tied to the Paris show, Winterkorn noted that for every gram of CO2 the target is cut, VW has to invest about 100 million Euros – about $140 million – “without knowing when these investments pay off.”

He isn’t the only one worried. New emissions standards, in general, are “one of the toughest issues we face,” said Sergio Marchionne, CEO of the recently merged Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, during a news conference at the Paris Motor Show.

Industry observers say that as tough as the proposed standards might be for the world’s largest automakers, VW, Toyota, General Motors and Ford among them, tighter regulations would be especially devastating to smaller companies with fewer resources.

Industry critics remain skeptical of such claims. They are quick to point out that automakers have been raising the specter of doom and gloom since the first clean air rules were passed in the 1970s – but manufacturers have so far achieved substantial results, both in reducing emissions and in raising mileage.

And, indeed, manufacturers acknowledge they have not hit the wall. They continue to make gains by adopting new technologies, such as direct injection, turbocharging and more advanced transmissions. But they insist these systems won’t go nearly far enough.

How far is possible? Renault says the Eolab concept on display at the Paris Motor Show yields 235 miles per gallon through the use of ultralight materials like carbon fiber and aluminum, by improving its aerodynamics, and by switching to a super-efficient hybrid powertrain pairing a 1-liter diesel engine and an electric motor.

Even luxury makers are exploring their options. The Lamborghini Asterion LPI-4 Concept supercar produces 907 horsepower yet can travel up to 31 miles on its batteries alone. Of course, a production version would be priced far beyond the reach of the typical Paris showgoer. And while Renault hasn’t projected a price for the Eolab, VW is charging $170,000 for a similarly efficient ultracar, its 2-seat XL1.

It is possible to meet almost any standard regulators set, according to industry planners. “But it will mean a shift in pricing,” Fiat Chrysler’s Marchionne says, adding that those who think the industry can meet some of the proposed rules at an affordable price “are deluding themselves.”

Whether regulators will listen to such concerns or see the industry as just crying wolf remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt that the upcoming discussions will amount to a very high-stakes poker game balancing the environment, the health of the auto industry and the needs and desires of consumers.

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