Technology Forcing

Posted on March 6, 2017 by Steve McKinney

We environmental lawyers are well-acquainted with the technology-forcing requirements of many statutes.  I, however, do not love technology and I hate being forced. 

The idea behind “technology forcing” statutory provisions is that if Congress adopts requirements beyond the demonstrated capability of currently available technology, that will cause smart people to develop new technology that will meet the new requirements.  Simple.  Better technology is just waiting to be developed.  The cost or other impacts of new technology are seldom regarded as good reasons to hesitate.  There may even be an implication that trying to count that cost or consider those impacts is an unreasonable hindrance to the unlimited and irrepressible march of technology, which is always good, right?

Not so fast.  In my standard Dad-think, I bought our youngest daughter a brand-new, highly-acclaimed-for-safety-and-reliability Honda Accord to begin her new post-graduate life of go-everywhere-any-time-of-night independence.  The reliable-as-a-hammer reputation of Honda, however, has been seriously tarnished for me because this car won’t always start.  One Sunday morning in January as my daughter prepared to depart Birmingham for Washington, D.C., the dashboard of that Accord lit up light a fireworks display before going black and taking the entire electrical system of the auto with it.  Because delay was not an option, she took her mother’s less efficient but more reliable old Lexus to DC while Dad spent Monday morning at the dealership.  The problem?  In pursuit of technology-forcing CAFÉ standards, Honda had a bright idea (all puns intended).  Honda added a sensor to detect when the Accord’s battery had sufficient residual charge to switch the car’s alternator out of service until needed.  Periodic reduction of the marginal drag of the alternator on the engine’s main drive belt at least theoretically benefited the Accord’s highway mileage rating.  Unfortunately, when the new sensor fails, as it did that Sunday morning, the entire electrical system goes haywire and the engine will not run.

When I came to understand that this tiny piece of technology that had been added to my car to chase a microscopic mileage advantage had also become a critical failure pathway for my precious daughter’s car, I was angry.  I admit it.  I cussed.  When the failure occurred again 45 days later on the Sunday morning my daughter was planning to return to DC with her Honda after bringing her Mom’s car home, I really cussed.  The earlier fireworks had likely damaged the car’s battery that now became the critical failure barrier to normal operation.

Cooler heads will explain that thousands of Honda Accords have probably operated millions of miles with that microscopic mileage advantage adding up.  But the personal travails of one little environmental lawyer at least microscopically demonstrate that there are costs and impacts to technology-forcing requirements.  The rest of this story might be even more entertaining.  What do you think will happen when a different kind of lawyer figures out that there may be thousands of Accord owners driving around with new technology-forcing battery sensor switches that are prone to failure and might cost you a battery?



Comments (1) -

Mike McCauley United States
3/6/2017 3:36:38 PM #

I remember well what a wise client said to me 15 years ago about his opinion on "technology forcing." It came in the midst of a contentious battle over the construction of a new $2.3 Billion power plant near Milwaukee. A number of environmental groups and one large company opposed the project. They were well-funded and argued in litigation that the new plant should utilize IGCC technology -- "Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle" electrical generation. IGCC was then and still remains "experimental." The project opponents nonetheless argued that IGCC should be considered BACT ("Best Available Control Technology") under the "technology forcing" air permitting provisions of the federal Clean Air Act for new sources. The opponents knew that the plant would never be built if IGCC were required. In a private moment in the midst of the battle (most likely over drinks), our client said, "You know Mike, the pioneers get the arrows; the settlers get the land." The plant was permitted without IGCC; we prevailed in all the legal challenges over the project; and the new plant was constructed and is now operating.

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