March 21, 2008

Make Me A Better Car!

Automobile fuel efficiency has garnered lots of public attention in the last two years. The public's taste for gas guzzling trucks and SUV's is diminishing as the price of operating these vehicles soars with record gas prices. But are our cars fuel efficient enough? By comparing our fuel economy standards with our peer nations the picture becomes very clear that consumers in America are being taken on a ride (no pun intended) by the auto manufacturers.

Our European neighbors have set a standard of 47mpg for gasoline vehicles and 52mpg for diesel vehicles. Currently the US fuel standards sit at 27.5mpg with a goal of 35mpg by 2020. A look at the number of vehicle models sold in the United States that achieve combined gas mileage of at least 40 miles per gallon actually has dropped from five in 2005 to just two in 2007 — the Honda Civic hybrid and the Toyota Prius hybrid.

Overseas, primarily in Europe, there are 113 vehicles for sale that get a combined 40 mpg, up from 86 in 2005. Combined gas mileage is the average of a vehicle’s city and highway mpg numbers. Adding insult to injury is the fact that nearly two-thirds of the 113 highly fuel-efficient models that are unavailable to American consumers are either made by U.S.-based automobile manufacturers or by foreign manufacturers with substantial U.S. sales operations, such as Nissan and Toyota.

So on the surface it seems that automakers have the ability to push fuel efficiency to the limit but the products are just not reaching the customers. Interestingly enough, Shell, one of the big, bad oil companies holds a competition every year (Eco-marathon) where teams build the most fuel efficient cars they can and have a race on one gallon of gasoline to see who can push their car the farthest. The team from the French technical school St. Joseph La Joliverie went 7,148 miles on a single gallon of fuel...the Shell website is quick to point out that that's "almost ten miles per teaspoon". Wow! Are you kidding me, 7,000 miles on one gallon of gasoline. That should really give you an idea of just how much power there is in a single gallon of fuel. And it should point out how little auto makers are doing to increase fuel economy.

The competition is obviously stretched to the extreme with cars that look more like surfboards with a canopy but the idea is there. I understand why Shell does this, I'm not trying to paint them as saints, but they want to be able to go to the market and say, "hey look what some engineers did with one gallon of our product, don't blame us for fuel costs and inefficiency."

And to tell you the truth I can't blame the oil companies. Although we do need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil (if only for economic reasons if you're not so much into the environmental side of it). Even "X prize" is getting involved (famous for there commercial space flight competition) with a $10M prize "to create a commercially viable car that gets at least 100 miles to the gallon". Peter Diamandis, CEO of the X Prize Foundation says, "we're not talking about concept cars...we're talking about real cars that can be brought to market." Even Congress has jumped on the bandwagon issuing a resolution praising the Automotive X Prize. Now lets hope they look on the other side of the issue and denounce the efforts of the big auto makers and make them do something about it.

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