Forget About 100-mpg Cars

"Why is so little attention being paid to getting better fuel efficiency, right now?"


There are noble projects afoot in the field of fuel-efficient cars. One of the boldest, the automotive X Prize, recently made the cover of Wired: "1 Gallon of Gas, 100 Miles-$10 million: The Race to Build the Supergreen Car." Reading stories like these, it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement.But if you really think about it, the 100-miles-per-gallon innovation isn't as immediately effective as making a simple switch from a Suburban to a Civic. Just do the math: If you raise a guzzler's fuel efficiency from 15 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon, you save almost four gallons per 100 miles. But boost a fairly efficient car from 35 mpg to 100 mpg, and you save less than two gallons in the same distance. More importantly, the technology for all cars to reach 35 mpg is already here. The same innovations that in the last 30 years have made family cars into muscle cars can be easily deployed to save gas rather than boost performance.So why is so little attention being paid to getting better fuel efficiency right now?Part of the problem is that America's big automakers are peddling a future-forward myopia that encourages feel-good complacency. Witness Chevy's commercial for the Volt, a concept car that isn't yet on the market: A pack of kids put their ears to the hood of a sexy silver car. A man standing nearby explains that the mysterious humming they hear is the car's "lithium-ion battery pack," which will allow the Volt to get 40 mpg.This is disturbing, and not just because the kids may have just piled out of a Chevy Suburban (14 mpg) off screen. Instead of a more fuel-efficient car right now, we get a "miracle," from the "future." In the meantime, why not just refuel the Suburban?
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So why is so little attention being paid to getting better fuel efficiency right now?
To its credit, Chevy is trying to bring the Volt to market by late 2010, and it has begun pursuing hybrid technology. But my concern is a rhetorical one: What happens when advancements in cars are eternally linked-through marketing and special prizes-with big innovations, rather than tangible results right now? Fuel efficiency gets its urgency sapped: Someone's working on it, with results TBD. Wait and see.Detroit argues (as always) that innovation brings growing pains. Ford's recent response to new federal guidelines is telling. In June, the Big Three told Congress that increased fuel efficiency would be too painful for the auto industry, and would require layoffs. (The United Auto Workers, meanwhile, largely supports the changes, as long as the manufacturing is domestic.) Despite the automakers' protests, Congress just passed the first increase in fuel-efficiency mandates in 34 years-from an average of 25 mpg now to 35 mpg by 2020. A month later, Ford introduced the EcoBoost engine, which delivers a 20-to-30-percent increase in fuel efficiency via turbo-charging and direct injection. It will be on the market by 2009. That wasn't so painful, was it?There is obviously a place for futurism in car development-averting the most disastrous climate-change scenarios will involve tripling fuel efficiency by 2050. But our current fuel standards are so low that this doesn't require us to invent trash-fueled, flying DeLoreans. Futurism should not command an outsized share of dollars and attention. We should focus on the now, and we should be figuring out how to institute gas-saving measures at a scale where they can actually effect change.Many options exist to ensure across-the-board improvements in fuel efficiency. Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, advocates turn-in programs for gas-guzzlers, subsidies for carbon-neutral biofuels and electric cars, and aggressive regulation of the fuel-efficiency "floor," so that gains don't stall if gas prices decline. The Natural Resources Defense Council has proposed that revenues from future carbon credit sales go into a "trust fund" that would promote the rapid uptake of sustainable technology. The point is that there is no silver bullet-not supercars, not biofuels. Ignoring or overemphasizing any one piece ensures failure.These measures don't give off a hum that will make the kids coo. But they're here now. We can't keep staring at the horizon and still avoid the dangers right under our noses.
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