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 V.13 No.31 | July 29 - August 4, 2004 

On Assignment

Gas Pains

If poor gas mileage hurts the U.S. economy and harms public health and the environment, why don't lawmakers call for greater efficiency?

Scott Rickson

Do you know what CAFE is? No, not your local croissant and cappuccino outlet, this acronym stands for Corporate Average Fuel Economy, a spate of vehicle fuel economy requirements mandated by Congress in 1975 in response to the Middle East oil crisis. CAFE rules demanded that automakers increase fuel economy for light-duty vehicles from an average of 13.1 miles per gallon (mpg) to 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for light-duty trucks. They were given until 1985 to come into compliance. What happened? The world did not end! We got cars with better gas mileage.

Since its inception, CAFE's cumulative benefits have been quite substantial: From 1973 to 1999, CAFE has saved the United States an estimated 800 billion gallons of gasoline—the equivalent of eight years of domestic consumption—and nearly $400 billion.

However, with the increased use of sport utility and truck-class vehicles since 1985, overall fuel economy has steadily declined and neither automakers nor a majority in Congress have sought to continue improvements in vehicle fuel economy. In fact, since automakers have not been required to further increase fuel economy, they've spent the last few decades focused on "improvements" in increased vehicle weight and performance. As a result (and to the detriment of fuel economy), average vehicle weight has increased 21 percent and horsepower 79 percent since 1981.

Here is where the political debate currently resides. Over the past few years, various members of Congress have introduced legislation to increase CAFE standards up to 50 percent, to be phased in over a period of a decade or so. None of these proposals has garnered enough votes, as the Republican-lead Congress has (as well as some tag-along Democrats) mostly been opposed to such changes.

There exists little question that the U.S. is mired in an energy fiasco both domestic and abroad. The transportation sector weighs heavily on this dependence. Oil imports are near 50 percent now and are expected to increase assuming "business-as-usual" energy and transportation policies. A significant expansion in domestic drilling to supplement oil imports is not practical, economical nor environmentally sane—we own 2 percent of the world's oil reserves, yet consume 25 percent of the world's petroleum output.

While there is none currently, a mandate by Congress to some degree might only be a matter of time. As such, automakers have begun to market a few fuel-efficient "hybrid" vehicles (combined efficient gas engine with self-regenerating battery for supplemental power). Most notably, Toyota and Honda began marketing their hybrid vehicles as early as 1997. Toyota's Prius and Honda's Civic and Insight are passenger cars with fuel economy above 50 mpg! As a matter of fact, the 2004 Toyota Prius, now considered a second-generation hybrid, won "best engineered vehicle" by Automotive Engineering International magazine. The performance and power of the Prius now exceeds even beyond some other traditional vehicles.

But the issue of fuel economy rests more with SUV/truck-class vehicles than with passenger cars, as gains to be made here are proportionately larger than for the already more fuel-efficient passenger cars.

Does increasing overall vehicle fuel economy come at the expense of eliminating our highly desired SUVs and trucks? No. In actuality, the goal is simply for an improvement in the fuel economy of these quite practical vehicles, along with other passenger cars.

Could increases in fuel economy be counterproductive by inducing people to drive more? Unlikely. Data suggest that increases in fuel economy will at best only marginally increase the amount one drives.

Could vehicle weight reduction in heavier models, as a means to improve fuel economy, affect driver crash survivability? That's also unlikely. Currently available, cost-competitive and high-strength steel and aluminum composite materials make this worry moot.

Seemingly ironic is that automakers have been developing fuel-efficient technologies in recent years while simultaneously lobbying Congress to resist their mandated implementation. Automakers also lobbied against seat belts and air bags; clearly, two very necessary changes that have saved thousands of lives and millions of dollars in medical expenses, both private and public.

Some of the proven technological advancements and tools that can be used throughout the U.S. vehicle fleet to improve fuel economy include aerodynamic design, continuously variable transmissions, cylinder deactivation, regenerative braking and weight reduction. Again, while these capabilities are here right now, only a select few vehicles are beginning to have these technologies incorporated into their design.

Other vehicle improvement options include new diesel engines. More efficient than the gasoline engines, diesels are now cleaner than they used to be but still contribute significantly to air pollution. The American Lung Association has just released the latest figures on air quality in the U.S.: about 55 percent of the country's population live in areas where the air is heavily polluted with ozone or soot particles—the latter of which is the main concern in diesel engines. Alternative fuels like biodiesel can help reduce this pollution but not eliminate it completely.

On another front, the fuel cell is perhaps the long-term transportation solution, depending on how and where the hydrogen—the presumed fuel of choice—is obtained. The theoretically quite efficient fuel cell vehicle is a "zero-emission" vehicle, with only byproducts of water and limited carbon dioxide. But with work still in progress to further clean the diesel, and fuel cell vehicles and the associated infrastructure only in its infancy, the U.S. needs to implement proven existing technology to bolster the fuel economy of the gasoline-powered vehicle in the interim.

If the Bush administration and Congress are serious about reducing our fuel consumption, a mandate and timeline for the automakers to fully implement such changes to the U.S. fleet is paramount. If need be, the federal government can step in to offer research and development funding to the automakers. Such mandates are the best way to encourage robust private-sector investment in new technologies. This is one area where government has no better substitution. In this way, the timely development and implementation of maturing technologies can be ensured.

Moreover, federally funded consumer rebates—similar to those available now for hybrid vehicles—will smooth the transition to more efficient vehicles which are likely to be initially more expensive. Consider this: The coupling of a government rebate with increased fuel economy allows Americans savings in fuel costs, reductions in vehicle pollutant emissions, reduction in U.S. foreign debt via decreases in foreign oil purchases and potential gains in national security through reduced oil dependence.

What's more, it's important to dispel the myth of high gas prices at home. Adjusted for inflation, the price of gas today is roughly what is has been, on average, for the last 50 years. The current rate of $1.85 per gallon in Albuquerque is certainly less expensive relative to the rest of the industrialized world—whose economies are doing just fine, even in the face of higher personal income tax rates!

And why is the United States beholden to OPEC oil? Because it's theirs. They don't have to give it to us, and we should expect them to respond to our rabid desire for oil with dollar signs in their eyes.

Is this at all about freedom? Sure it is. Eliminating our dependence on foreign oil means freedom from our constant presence in every sovereign nation's backyard. It's freedom from wondering just how long this war against "terror" will continue. Our foreign energy dependence may not be the only factor, but is a major component in why we constantly find ourselves needing to defend ourselves from other countries and peoples, and why much of the world continues to harbor contempt for the U.S.

Where is the government in all this? By allowing energy industry representatives to dictate energy policy and by dismissing social and environmental concerns when looking to expand domestic energy production, the Bush administration closes the door to options for sanely and effectively improving our long-term energy position. Certainly they close the door on the American people, further eroding the confidence we place in our elected officials.

Some critics have touted that fuel economy is "not what the consumer wants." True, automakers and the federal government can be criticized justly for lack of action, but so can the consumer, for we have not demanded change here and have not chosen to make lifestyle changes on our own. Unfortunately, the majority of consumers don't have fuel economy in mind when purchasing a vehicle, yet, after the purchase, driving a gas hog tends to induce customer disdain when filling up at the pump. Perhaps it is not too far a stretch to suggest we need to examine the choices we make, and accordingly make some adjustments here at home.

Contact your congressional officials and the U.S. automakers, and ask that they fully commit to higher CAFE standards for every vehicle. So the next time you plan to buy that large pick-up, SUV, or passenger car, the guilt of doing so because you felt you had insufficient energy-efficient options, need no longer exist.

For more information, see www.ucsusa.org, www.nrdc.org, www.ed.org or www.aceee.org.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Zyla is a chemical engineer at Sandia National Labs.

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