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Efficient Cars

December 20, 2015

My car is a Honda Accord with the four-cylinder engine.  Honda has the best four in the industry.  It has plenty of power, along with low fuel consumption.  How is this possible?

It’s one of the effects of the CAFE fuel economy regulations set by the US government.  This program started back when gasoline prices were high, and when cars burned way too much gasoline.  Every year, they reduced the fuel consumption targets.  The result was ever more fuel-efficient cars.  Most of this was achieved with technology such as smaller engines, fuel injection, computer control, cylinder shutdown, and turbo-charging.  Every year, the automobile companies were able to meet the targets.  At the same time, they were able to increase the horsepower of their engines.  That’s quite an impressive record.  Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days of gas guzzling engines.  Still, people don’t have that choice.  They have to buy what the dealer has to sell, cars with fuel-efficient engines.

That puts us, the car buying public, in an interesting position now.  We have lots of money to spend on cars.  We don’t care about fuel economy, although we don’t have any choice there.  We don’t care about cost, either, provided that we get what we want.

Most of this information comes from an article that I recently read, titled “Oil Hog Nation: How we squandered fuel economy advances on bigger vehicles”.  This article describes how people wanted luxury and performance in their cars.  They wanted entertainment systems.  They also wanted security, in terms of safety and protection.  Of course, many people wanted a vehicle that could be used for carrying passengers or hauling freight, even though it was empty except for the driver, most of the time.  That’s a tall order, considering that people also wanted to reduce automotive emissions.

It’s certainly the large vehicles like SUVs and four-door trucks that are popular now.  These surely have higher fuel consumtion than regular cars, just because of their weight and their higher wind resistance.  Are people going to give them up?

People also have the mistaken idea that all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive make vehicles safer.  They want these options on every car these days.  They are certainly advertized as security features.  If you look beyond all the review articles on new cars, you will find that all-wheel and four-wheel drive improve performance, but do nothing for stopping distance or skid resistance.  They are not a safety feature at all.  For winter driving on snow or ice, winter tires are the thing to choose: they are a true safety feature, even if they are not as convenient.

Of course, people may want a different sort of security feature, one that protects them against irrational fears.  Fear is the most powerful emotion that motivates people to purchase products.  Read “SUVs, handwash, and FOMO: how the advertising industry embraced fear” if you don’t believe me.

What’s going to happen to automobile efficiency now?  All of the countries have acknowledged climate change and have pledged to reduce greenhouse gases.  They will want to reduce fuel consumption by cars and trucks even further.  Gasoline engines can’t be made much more efficient than they are now.  The engineers have run out of tricks in that area.  The only thing left is to make cars and trucks smaller than they are now.  Buyers may not have noticed the improvement in fuel economy, but they will certainly notice a reduction in size.  My Honda Accord, by the way, is longer than the European Accord, because North Americans like larger cars.  Will they accept smaller cars?  I expect the public will balk at that change.

Crude oil prices are at historic lows.  Gasoline prices are dropping.  Are the CAFE rules still relevant?  I expect there will be some pressure from the public to repeal these rules.  Without them, cars will be burning more fuel and generating more greenhouse gases.  What will happen to the pledge to reduce greehouse gases then?  I see a backlash here too.  I know the public does support action against climate change, but will they maintain that support when they themselves are affected?


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