Driving the Future: Combating Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars (review)

Driving the Future by Margo Oge

Driving the Future, by former EPA official Margo Oge, tells the fascinating story of how the agency achieved a historic agreement with the auto industry to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions – an agreement that delivered cleaner air and millions of dollars in savings for consumers, and gave a huge boost to the growing American EV industry.

Ms. Oge takes us through the history of the automobile, and the long struggle to mitigate the pollution it causes. The Clean Air Act, which remains a centerpiece of anti-pollution efforts, was created by Senator Edmund Muskie in 1970, and signed into law by President Richard Nixon, who also created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Oge joined the EPA in 1980, and served as Director of the agency’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 2004 to 2012. She led the team that authored the EPA’s Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards, which require automakers to halve the greenhouse gas emissions of cars and light trucks while doubling fuel economy, by 2025.

This is a “technology forcing” set of regulations, which means that it does not prescribe specific steps that the industry must take, but rather allows companies to choose the best and most cost-effective technologies to achieve the required improvements in emissions and fuel economy. In the event, the EPA regulations (together with measures taken by the California Air Resources Board and European regulatory agencies) have been one of the main factors driving automakers to produce plug-in vehicles.

This book lays bare the process that led to these regulations. As the old adage has it, that process is like making sausages – bloody and unappetizing. Oge and her colleagues are savvy political operators, enduring endless meetings and arranging complex deals and compromises to craft regulations that auto industry execs and other stakeholders can live with.

A couple of truths, which some may find disillusioning, emerge from the narrative. First, aside from Tesla, the auto industry is not building cleaner cars by choice, but because of government mandates. Oge documents the auto industry’s long and ongoing fight against new safety and anti-pollution features, from seat belts to catalytic converters (which execs insisted would bankrupt the industry) to today’s CAFE and ZEV rules.

Second, we have the Obama administration to thank for today’s cleaner cars. As Oge recounts in detail, the Bush administration did everything possible to block, stall or water down the EPA’s efforts. Again and again, Bush appointees and their (mostly Republican) allies in Congress suppressed data from scientists, steered industry-friendly officials into positions of power, and discredited or ignored those who pushed for tighter rules. In one comically egregious example, a senior official refused to open an e-mail message containing a scientific report on climate change – for several years.

This is a story of courage and persistence, and of finding creative ways to reach compromises and find common ground among groups with very different goals. The story has a happy end – for now. Cars are cleaner and safer than ever, and the US is a leader in the rapidly growing EV industry.

This is a well-written and engaging volume. However, as is the case with too many books these days, editing seems to have been an afterthought. Typos and grammatical errors are to be found on almost every page. Oge is a good writer, but English is not her first language (she was born in Greece), and this may explain some grammatical idiosyncrasies, including a disorienting way of switching between present and past tenses seemingly at random. Ironing out such imperfections is the job of a person called a copy editor.

Driving the Future is 317 pages long, is published by Arcade Publishing, and is available in hardcover ($20.22), paperback ($14.44) and e-book ($14.99) editions.