With its recent adoption of pioneering vehicle-emissions standards, the California Air Resources Board is back in the center of the world’s clean-car-policy stage. And ITS-Davis graduate Nic Lutsey is being commended for his analytical work, which played a leading role in the development of the new regulations.
Lutsey, an ITS-Davis graduate and postdoctoral researcher and an ARB research consultant, was largely responsible for the vehicle technology, feasibility and cost assessments at the heart of the agency’s new vehicle criteria pollutant (smog) and greenhouse-gas (GHG) standards.
Lutsey, who earned his Ph.D. in Transportation Technology and Policy in 2008, has been an integral member of the ARB team that developed the rules over the past three years. So involved was he that ARB management asked him to give one of the four staff presentations at January’s standing-room-only board meeting, an honor typically reserved for agency staff – not contractors.
He also was an integral member of the ARB team that worked closely with U.S. EPA and DOT analysts on parallel federal GHG and fuel economy standards that are set to be finalized this summer.
Lutsey’s assignment was to create the basis for the agencies’ assessments of emerging vehicle technologies and their emissions-reduction potential in the 2017-to-2025 time frame. The process involved modeling, extensive interaction with automakers, and coordination with automotive industry contractors.
He and the ARB team consulted for hundreds of hours with all the major automakers and automotive industry contractors. To determine what combinations of emerging technologies could be applied to vehicles to meet the emissions goals, the analytical team modeled many dozens of technology “packages” across 19 different car, crossover and pickup vehicle classes. Each package generally included 10 to 15 technologies such as vehicle aerodynamics, engine turbocharging, hybridization and advanced transmissions.
“We evaluated all these technologies and their technical potential in terms of CO2 reduction, together with data from the external contractors, to determine exactly how effective each technology package could be, and at what cost,” Lutsey explained.
“Then we combined our technology simulations with companies’ existing products and future plans, to model how companies might comply with more stringent standards.”
Air Board’s New Rules For 2025
The work, in essence, provides the technical backbone of the analysis for ARB and EPA.
Tom Cackette, the air board’s chief deputy executive officer, praised Lutsey’s exceptional talent for analyzing complex issues thoroughly and quickly. “He is particularly skilled at taking a policy question and answering it with a basis in technology and cost. He could analyze the data and put it in context so that a decision-maker, such as [ARB chairman] Mary Nichols or I, could understand what it meant.”
For example, Cackette said, Lutsey could explain how a particular policy change would impact a manufacturer’s choice of vehicle technology. And if technology changed as an assumption for meeting one aspect of the standard, Lutsey could say how that change might affect the rest of standard. Predictions about vehicle weight reduction, increased or decreased vehicle hybridization, more or fewer electric vehicles — all affected the likely outcome.
When Lutsey pulled those pieces together for the decision makers, he won deep respect from the analysts at U.S. EPA, DOT and California ARB, who came to rely on him a great deal, Cackette said.
The work and Lutsey were a perfect match. At UC Davis, he had studied thermodynamics and vehicle simulation, environmental policy, and tradeoffs between environmental protection and costs. Dan Sperling was his thesis advisor.
“If there was a more perfect place for me to be than this after my ITS-Davis training, I can’t imagine where it is,” Lutsey said.
Others see it as a good match, too. In 2011, Lutsey received the prestigious Barry McNutt Award, given annually by the Energy and Alternative Fuels committees of the Transportation Research Board. The award recognizes outstanding contributions to the development of efficient and effective federal policies related to the automotive sector. In addition, he has routinely engaged with numerous international regulatory agencies on the technical basis for automotive regulations.
And in 2004, after he worked for ARB as a graduate student, giving technical support to the first round of vehicle GHG standards, the board gave him a Gold Certificate of Appreciation.
Having participated in the 2004 and now the 2011-2012 rulemakings, Lutsey has a unique perspective on the process. The biggest difference this time was the increased level of interaction between the California air board, federal agencies and carmakers, he said.
The collaboration was intense and productive, and the leadership of the White House, which directed all parties to work together, was critical to making the process move forward.
“It’s been very gratifying to see industry proactively involved and the agencies working together in an unprecedented way, in one of the most comprehensive assessments, steered toward a common end goal,” Lutsey concluded. “We’ll celebrate this for 15 years as a model for what policy and industry collaboration can do.”
In addition to Lutsey’s contributions, ITS-Davis graduate student Belinda Chen and alumnus Joshua Cunningham played leading roles as staff researchers at ARB.
Chen, who works in ARB’s Research Division while completing her graduate studies, crunched the numbers and led the economic modeling to support the staff’s economic analysis of the rules. Cunningham, a 2001 Transportation Technology and Policy graduate, and now an ARB Mobile Source Division staff member, developed scenarios that became the framework for the updated Zero Emission Vehicle Program. He currently is “on loan” from ARB to the California Plug-in Electric Vehicle Collaborative.
“We couldn’t have done it without them,” said Cackette. “They stepped up, they did it, and they did it really well. Their contribution led to a successful adoption of the clean cars rule.”