David Friedman

Designs a Safer, More Fuel-Efficient Automobile

By Joe and Diane Devanney

Until a generation or so ago, the fields of engineering and public policy were viewed as separate domains. In recent years, however, engineers have increasingly intruded into the policymaking sphere of government, a development that comes as a byproduct of contemporary issues ranging from global warming to consumer protection. On the cutting edge of this movement is David Friedman, research director for the Clean Vehicles Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in Washington D.C.

Among other accomplishments, Friedman has co-designed the UCS Guardian, a concept sport utility vehicle based on the Ford Explorer. He and other engineers believe the Guardian represents a safer, more fuel-efficient design that still has the size and power desired by motorists.

A native of Rhode Island, Friedman earned his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts in 1992 and is close to completing his Ph.D. dissertation on fuel cell stack and system modeling and optimization for his doctoral degree from the University of California Davis Transportation Technology and Policy Program.

From his undergraduate experiences, Friedman developed an interest in alternatives to fossil fuel reliance. “I started with robotics engineering,” he recalls, “and then aerospace engineering. In the end, neither fit my personal worldview, a view dramatically broadened by taking philosophy courses. Put into that mix a growing awareness of the harmful impacts of energy use, such as smog, acid rain, and global warming, and watching a war at least partly linked to a need for continued access to oil supplies, and you get a young engineer who became focused on finding alternatives to modern energy patterns.”

Friedman soon became fascinated with the idea of hydrogen as an alternative energy carrier. After graduation, he worked for the consulting firm of Arthur D. Little at its headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In speaking of that time, he recalls, “The variety of work there helped me get my feet wet in a broad set of areas. At the same time, working on government programs, seeing the potential of the technology, but seeing the lack of progress in the real world, brought home the severe disconnect that existed between the engineering world and the
policy world.”

Friedman decided he wanted to bridge that gap, so he enrolled at U.C. Davis. Why would a New Englander want to venture to the opposite corner of the U.S.? “First,” he responds, “U.C. Davis had one of the few programs in the country that explicitly melded engineering and policy. Second, it has some of the nation’s experts on these issues who know the technology, policy, or both when it comes to cars and trucks. Finally, after spending all of my life in New England, I wanted to try the left coast.” In addition to his dissertation, his activities there included helping to build a hybrid electric conversion of a family car that could get 60 miles a gallon. Also at Davis, he met his present UCS boss, Jason Mark. “Even before finishing my dissertation, I jumped at a job opening at UCS, still with that goal of helping the world by tapping into what engineering has to offer.”

One manifestation of that goal has been the UCS Guardian concept. To improve fuel efficiency over current SUVs to that of today’s typical car, it has a more efficient engine, reduced weight, and modifications to streamline the vehicle. For increased safety, the six-cylinder vehicle has a uniform steel frame, a crumble-resistant roof, lower bumpers that protect other drivers in a crash, and a seat-belt system with reminder sounds that don’t turn off until they’re buckled. The proposed price: around $29,935, about $750 more than a similarly configured Ford Explorer. The improvements pay for themselves in about a year at today’s gas prices.

According to Friedman, “The Guardian was developed by looking at the technologies the auto industry has already developed and pointing to how they can be expanded from today’s niche applications to improve the fuel economy and safety of the SUVs that have become the new family car.” He adds, “The purpose is to point to the solutions, educate consumers and lawmakers about the potential, and encourage the auto industry to invest their resources in a direction that will save consumers money, improve U.S. energy security, reduce global warming, and improve competitiveness in a world of high gasoline prices.”

“This was to show how innovation puts to rest the auto industry myth that the only way to get improved fuel economy is to build smaller vehicles and that fuel economy inherently means giving up safety when the exact opposite can be true,” Friedman says. “The result is an SUV with fuel economy improvements that pay for themselves through gasoline savings and that would save thousands of lives every year if all SUVs put the safety technology to work.” The Guardian, Friedman stresses, is not about the use of any exotic technologies, alternative fuels or even hybridization. Instead, he believes that “It’s about using a more efficient engine, U.S.-made high-strength steel, improved aerodynamic design, and better tires.”

Signs indicate that some elements of the automobile industry may be starting to follow the lead of Friedman and the UCS in their approach to improved designs. “Honda,” Friedman notes, “has taken a leadership role, stepping out in front of much of the competition by putting technology to work to produce vehicles with dramatically lower smog-forming pollution, one-half the industry average in fact. Honda also leads when it comes to global warming pollution, but they still have far to go.”

Friedman also offers comments on Ford’s new Escape hybrid. “In general, Ford has done a good job with their first hybrid. Sadly, they are only making about 20,000 a year, so while they are selling every one, consumer demand remains far from satisfied.” But Friedman reports that Ford recently announced that they will increase hybrid production by a factor of 10 by the end of the decade. “For a company struggling for its economic survival, their hybrid investment makes good business sense as well as environmental sense.”

“If hybrid technology is used well,” Friedman adds, “it can take an SUV even further than the Guardian, but hybrids are more expensive and need longer before they can become the dominant vehicle choice. Over the next decade, the most cost-effective technology is the conventional technology in the Guardian. That’s the type of technology we should see in every garage over the next five to ten years while the hybrid market grows.”

Friedman offers insights into why the automobile industry is reluctant to address the Guardian and related concepts. “The main challenge with the auto industry,” he states, “is that most are stuck in the mode of trying to squeeze every penny they can out of the investments they have made over the past ten to twenty years to make a larger profit two days, two weeks, or two months from now. They tend to be shorter sighted and less fleet footed, which is why they have been caught off guard by today’s high gas prices. The problem now is that the money they’re squeezing out of old investments is sticking us with no way out of high gasoline prices.”

Besides improving fuel economy, Friedman thinks technology like the Guardian’s will also create many new jobs and make American automakers more competitive. He argues, “If the fleet tapped into this technology to bring the average fuel economy of passenger cars and trucks from around 24 mpg today to 40 mpg by 2015, it would lead to 40,000 new jobs in the auto industry by 2015, more than 160,000 throughout the country, while saving consumers more than $20 billion on gasoline even after paying for the fuel economy improvements. Not to mention the 2.3 million barrels of oil we would be saving every day in 2015, more than we currently import from Saudi Arabia.”

With figures like these, coupled with the recent rise in gasoline prices hitting the wallet of every driver in the U.S., it seems Friedman’s ideas are becoming increasingly mainstream, offering proof that engineering and public policy indeed mix. And with his experience at U.C. Davis nearly complete, he says he now enjoys applying his extensive training on the east coast. “California is a great place, but I love seasons, the lushness of the east coast, and the buzz in Washington D.C.”

For more information on the Union of Concerned Scientists and their vehicle research, visit www.ucsusa.org

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