Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Cleaner Cars: Where There's a Will, There's a Way

Only there's no will.

The message behind last week's NYT article on automotive technology is that clean, fuel-efficient, competent vehicles don't sell. What sells is faster, bigger, showier.
For two decades automakers have been developing technology that could make vehicles go farther on a gallon of gasoline. But instead, they have chosen pep and size — making vehicles like the new Murano accelerate faster than cars like the old Mustang, and making them bigger.

The average vehicle, which 25 years ago accelerated to 60 miles an hour in 14.4 seconds, now does it in 9.9 seconds, a pace once typical only of sporty or luxury cars like Camaros and Jaguars. And vehicle weight now averages about 4,100 pounds, up from about 3,200 in the early 1980's, as many buyers switched to larger, roomier cars or to sport utility vehicles and minivans, and as automakers added safety equipment.

Buyers like the extra zoom and room, but these have come at a cost: average fuel economy has fallen slightly over the last two decades. The government's new standards for light trucks like S.U.V.'s, published yesterday, will require an 8.1 percent increase in miles per gallon over the four model years from 2008 through 2011.

I suspect that, to many, this is old news. It's not that we lack the technology to clean up our cars and, by extension, our environment; it's that we're unwilling to make the choices (I can't even call them "sacrifices") to get there.
If 2005 model vehicles, with their better technology, had the performance and size of those in 1987, they would use only 80 percent of the gasoline they do today, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That alone would get the country nearly halfway to the goal President Bush set in his State of the Union address: to cut American oil consumption enough to nearly eliminate the need to import from the Middle East.

But because Americans have not insisted on better fuel economy, "we can take the technology in the cars and turn the knob toward performance," said Karl H. Hellman, an automotive development expert who retired from the E.P.A. two years ago.

It's frustrating, more than anything, to know that so much of the struggle to clean up environmental pollution could be addressed by the simple recognition that we don't need our mid-sized sedans to perform like dragsters as they haul us to and from the corner store.


Blogger Potentilla said...

But IMHO, high-performance cars don't sell better because they actually have higher performance, but because of their display value - you can boast about them down the pub (or whatever the US equivalent is).

We need to find some way of making fuel efficiency sexy. More sexy than either acceleration or road dominance by size.

To do that, you need a visible and honst signal of actual fuel efficiency, and a way of associating it with things we do think are sexy, like size and speed. Endurance perhaps? Tall order, anyhow.

The only other possibility is legislative/regulatory restraints on speed/engine capacity/whatever. Maybe combine the two and make it legally required that all vehicles over a certain specification carry a visible sign saying "I am a fuckwit".

Thu Apr 06, 09:59:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Tim Kanwar said...

Heh. I think I like your last suggestion the best. Maybe, in addition, all gas-guzzling vehicles should only be sold in pastels. What do you think?

In all seriousness, while I think that "display value" or, more broadly, social status is one way to sell cars, I don't think it is the only one. Equating fuel efficiency with endurance - the analogy being, somehow, that people who drive fuel efficient cars somehow have greater endurance or stamina themselves; which I suppose isn't any less ridiculous than the notion that people who drive cool or sexy cars are themselves cool and/or sexy. - is one strategy but I think that, ultimately, it will take a legislative solution to curb the upward climb of performance-at-the-expense-of-pollution automobiles.

Whether imposed directly by the legislature (in the form of a gas tax, for instance) or by the basic economic reality of diminishing fossil fuels, I think it will take substantial financial incentives to tip the consumer scales in favor of smaller, cleaner, more practical automobiles.

I only hope that day is not as far away as it seems at this moment.

Sat Apr 08, 04:37:00 PM EDT  

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