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Fuel Economy

August 31, 2014

Will new cars have better fuel economy than they do now?  I read about this on the web some time ago, but I can’t find the reference now.  It’s essentially an engineering question.  Unfortunately, most of the improvement has already been done.  Streamlining cars has certainly had an effect, but that was done years ago.  Computer-controlled engines are more recent.  That technology has been very effective.  What about putting smaller engines in cars?  That’s already been done, and has gone about as far as it can go.  In a test I heard about, even smaller engines actually used more fuel because they were labouring all the time.  The only thing left to change is the drag on cars from air displacement.  This effect is mainly governed by the frontal area of the car.  The only way to reduce it is to build smaller cars.  That’s unlikely to happen, for a variety of reasons.

Canada follows the US rules for fuel economy.  The US government imposes these rules on companies building cars in the US or importing them.  The rules set the average fuel economy for the entire fleet of cars coming from these companies.  Companies, of course, sell a range of vehicles, some more fuel-efficient than others.  In order to meet the averages, they typically sell a large number of economical cars, along with a few powerful cars that use considerably more fuel.  It’s these powerful ones that make the news, even though not many of them are actually sold.

There’s a conflict between what individuals want, and what the population as a whole wants.  The government wants to reduce fuel consumption over the entire country, but they also don’t want to deprive people of their freedom to buy whatever car they want.  Of course, people want many different things.  Some want low-cost transportation.  Some want an environmentally-friendly vehicle.  Some want a large carrying capacity, either for people or materials.  Some want a small car; some want a large one.  Some want performance, with high speed and lots of engine power.  How can one rule fit such a wide range of requirements?

I recall seeing a review of the Honda Accord, the car I drive, in a British newspaper.  I thought I’d like to see what they thought of my car, but the first thing I read was that the north american Accord was larger than the European model, just because north americans liked larger cars.  That’s a problem right there.  Even more worrying was the revelation that some people, perhaps unconciously, wanted a car that resembled a military vehicle for their own security and as a defensive weapon.  When their choice is driven by fear, they disregard all other factors, including cost and environmental concerns.  A couple of years ago, when I was on a tour of southern Utah, I was surprised to find cattle ranching in the desert.  Ranches there were enormous.  Ranchers had to haul water long distances for their cattle.  They campaigned for low priced fuel, and complained about how many times the cost had risen in recent years.  They’ll be forced out of business if fuel costs rise any more.

What are the solutions?  Of course, there’s no single solution that will satisfy the whole range of demands.  Alternative fuels might offer a solution, but they won’t be able to compete with gasoline until the cost of gas becomes considerably higher.  Most people seem not to be concerned about fuel prices.  They’ve adjusted to them.  They continue to buy large cars, and even larger trucks, as if the cost of fuel was insignificant.  It is significant to some people, though.  Some will have to give up long drives to work and back as uneconomical.  Some will even go out of business.  European countries have raised fuel prices by taxing it heavily.  That has resulted in smaller cars and less driving.  Higher fuel prices will happen anyway as oil supplies are used up.  The taxes are a good way to prepare people for that event.


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