Educating Drivers about FFVs and Renewable Fuels

Can your motor vehicle administration break the blend wall and help meet the RFS?
By Burl Haigwood | November 15, 2011

In order to earn the privilege to drive, potential drivers must not only learn the rules of the road, but also show an understanding of safety issues. It is time that the privilege includes the responsibility to understand how their gasoline addiction has a direct impact on safety as it relates to their economic/environmental/energy/national security—and personal health. A national public education strategy worked for littering, recycling, smoking, seat belts and child safety seats. It’s time we give our national energy crisis and the national renewable fuel standard (RFS) the same reverence we give auto safety and trash—and with the same order of magnitude.

The National FlexFuel Vehicle Awareness Campaign initiated such a project by working with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. The AAMVA recently reached out to all of their state motor vehicle administrators (MVAs) and informed them about our new FlexFuel Vehicle Awareness/Motor Vehicle Administration Driver Education Project. The FFV/MVA project creates the opportunity to collaborate on driver education projects in six states with high concentrations of flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) and/or flex-fuel pumps. Why? In some areas it is estimated that 90 percent of FFV owners don’t know they are driving this special vehicle. Therefore, it would be safe to guess that an equally high number don’t know where to find nearest flex-fuel pump. How to reach those drivers—the motor vehicle administration. The first question to be asked—“Are you driving an FFV?” 

The initial response to the FFV/MVA project has been favorable because it also supports the goals of the RFS which are synergistic with state goals to create jobs, protect the environment and public health of citizens and improve energy diversity. Two components of this project point to its potential effectiveness. First, states think this project is timely because they believe chronic high gasoline prices and supply shortages will continue and become status quo. Second, FFV owners and flex-fuel pumps could be an important part of the state’s energy emergency preparedness plan, in the event of a price spike or shortage caused by a natural or diplomatic disaster.

The FFV awareness campaign will work to combine its education tools with the MVAs’ ability to communicate with all drivers, and specifically FFV owners. First, we will encourage states to develop their FFV owner/vehicle registration database, similar to projects piloted by the American Lung Association and other stakeholders in Ohio, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Each state is unique, so we have found different procedures need to be followed.

To further the FFV/MVA project, we will also help MVAs explore, and include in the daily work routine, other no- to low-cost activities that could make energy and FFV awareness part of driver education culture. Activities include posting website information, reaching out to FFV dealers, incorporating FFV information in driver preparation and testing, including information in vehicle registration and license renewal mailings, safety inspection and emissions notices, and providing information at point-of-service locations. Our preliminary research shows MVA participation does not need outside agency approval for most activities and actual internal costs are zero to minimal.

Our research discovered that significant education projects that are aimed at the driver and focused on energy awareness, and especially the RFS or FFV owners simply do not exist outside a few Midwestern states. Our efforts will begin to fill that void by creating demonstration programs and encouraging other states to do the same. For example, the North Dakota state government recently partnered in a program that will invest nearly $500,000 to start reaching FFV owners in their state. USDA, the U.S. EPA, and the Governors Biofuels Coalition have added their support to the FFV Awareness Campaign. Our goal now is to appeal to more stakeholders to join in.

Supporting the RFS

The project addresses many of the challenges that face stakeholders trying to support the RFS. It will:

1. Help sustain existing E85 infrastructure to support the rollouts of midlevel blends and transition to flex-fuel pumps.

2. Complement industry/government refueling infrastructure investments—by educating customers and helping them locate flex-fuel pumps.

3. Generate energy awareness while creating positive information about the RFS, ethanol and alternative fuel vehicles.

4. Leverage the support of EPA, USDA, the Governors Biofuels Coalition, several Clean Cities Coalitions, and over 30 other energy/environment/national security organizations for the campaign.

5. Educate consumers that they can move from the existing involuntary purchase of ethanol to one of choice. The RFS is not a consumer requirement.

6. Help break the E10 blend wall by reaching demand levels that will justify investment in cellulose and advanced ethanol/biofuels.

We hope stakeholders don’t see this as “instead of” project that would deter from other market development and refueling infrastructure investment efforts. It’s part of a portfolio approach. We trust most RFS advocates will also see this effort is not just about FFVs or specifically E85. It is a tremendous opportunity at hand. The project is first about the RFS, and then how the states and the public can achieve those benefits with the use of higher blends of ethanol—safe and valuable common ground for many diverse groups to rally around.

Considering the end game in this adult education process, it is likely that more consumers will be willing to try and sustain the purchase of higher blends of ethanol if they were truly enlightened. More FFV owners would look for a flex-fuel pump, if they knew it was for their flex-fuel car. We hope industry and government stakeholders share our vision. There are multilevel values of the FFV campaign as both a near and long term strategy—and it needs to be supported now.

Regardless of the eventual price point for higher ethanol blends, education will play an important role in consumers valuing fuel choice. After all, hybrids, Volts, and electric vehicles do not have an economic advantage today—but they are all sold on the same FFV value proposition of energy and environmental security. This project will generate as much goodwill about the RFS and ethanol as simply encouraging ethanol use. Regardless of the burden of proof, consumers will continue to be exposed to fear and doubt generated in the media and they will need counterbalancing information.

Collaborating with Automakers

There also are many value propositions and justification for automakers to support this FFV/MVA project and therefore support the RFS and the use of higher blends of ethanol in their vehicles.

First, education aimed at all drivers will reach millions of consumers. This will engage drivers in the first step of educated decisions—to determine if their vehicles can use a higher blend of ethanol. This will reduce automaker concerns about proper refueling, and in the end, create a satisfied consumer for all stakeholders.

When specifically aimed at FFV owners, the project is aligned with the proper refueling goals of all automakers and the need to increase the utilization of alternative fuel in FFVs to meet corporate average fuel economy standard (CAFE) credit usage verification requirements. In addition, the project addresses the long-term complaints from the environmental community regarding minimal flex-fuel use in FFVs.

Success in educating consumers will enhance the value of the FFV credit/technology option to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and could serve as a safety net should consumers not fully embrace the introduction of electric vehicles, which is needed to meet new CAFE regulations. Furthermore, energy awareness will accelerate the desire of the public to buy more new fuel-efficient, clean-burning alternative fuel vehicles as they come to market. This would help move energy usage responsibility from being solely the burden of the automaker to one of a shared responsibility with the vehicle owner and the fuel provider.

While many state governments are interested in the economic, environmental and energy security benefits of the RFS, we have found very few focus on how to reach that endgame. The clean fuels and clean cars stakeholder coalition created during the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 led to a historic change in fuel quality, emissions reductions and, as an added bonus, crude oil reduction. The next round of CAFE requirements, and possible changes to fuel, represent the next historic opportunity.

The FFV/MVA project is a win for states interested in developing biofuels, a win for FFV makers and dealers, a win for gasoline retailers, a win for agriculture, a win for the biofuels industry looking to hurdle the E10 blend wall, and a win for the public. This project is truly in the national interest and supports the goals of the general public.

Author: Burl Haigwood
Director, Program Development, Clean Fuels Foundation
(301) 718-0077


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