Big Cars, Big Engines, Big Paradox

America’s foolish love affair with the automobile

My wife and I moved from the San Francisco area to Colorado about 10 years ago. Now when I go back to visit our adult children and grandchildren the first thing I notice is the number of single occupant cars clogging the freeways. Of course the difference in population densities is huge. There are only about 5.5 million humans in Colorado. Where I used to live I could probably see that many by standing on the roof of our house.

We’ve grown comfortable with needing so much steel and energy to hurl us from home to cubicle at seventy miles per hour. We’re a nation in love with cars and the independence of travel. We’re also a nation that is concerned with dependence on oil and carbon emissions. Yet 50 percent of U.S. petroleum goes for passenger vehicle travel, while less than one percent goes for electric generation, and our transportation sector produces over 30 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.

So why do we hear so much about renewable energy being the answer to oil dependence? Probably because of ignorance and also some denial, because we can’t seem to change our driving habits and we’ve given up trying.

Have you seen the new MIT report: “The case of the missing gas mileage” ? In it MIT economist Christopher Knittel concludes that, because automobiles are bigger and more powerful than they were three decades ago, major innovations in fuel efficiency have only produced minor gains in gas mileage. From 1980 to 2006 automobile manufacturers increased fuel efficiency by 60%, meaning that, if you were driving the same weight and horsepower car that you had in 1980 but with a modern engine, you could expect 60 percent more miles per gallon. Since the average mileage in in 1980 was 23 miles per gallon, we would now expect 37 miles per gallon. But the problem is that we’re driving bigger and more powerful cars – heavier by 26 percent and propelled by 107 percent more horsepower.  So the average mileage has increased by only 15 miles per gallon.

I’m not surprised too much by the numbers. Seems like there are a lot more SUVs on the road. Suburban conestogas with all-wheel drive that are shown flying across arctic tundra on TV commercials, but usually have no tougher duty than weekday commutes and hauling groceries and ferrying kids to soccer practice.

We have a 2004 Toyota Tacoma with 4 wheel drive. Pretty handy in the winter here where the local streets don’t get snow-plowed often enough. Plus, we use it for rock hounding and exploring in the Rocky Mountain back country. But I wouldn’t use it for commuting because it only gets about 20 miles per gallon on the highway. 

Blame the auto manufacturers if you like. But Knittel says that they are simply responding to consumer demand. And the cost of gasoline is not high enough to force drivers to smaller vehicles, even during the recession. Knittel argues for increasing the gasoline tax. That would work if high enough. But I can’t see it being passed through the legislators anytime soon, can you?

How about electric cars? Most everyone agrees that they’re a great idea. The problem is a very small percentage of drivers are buying them. See Electric Vehicles Headed for a Big Crash 

Ultimately we’ll see big moves to electric and electric hybrid vehicles and reducing commute distances through city planning. I won’t see that in my lifetime. Maybe I can talk to my grandkids about it the next time I’m brave enough to tackle a Southern California freeway.

 

Comments

So in the end we are

So in the end we are responsible for the rising car number despite the fact that the oil supply is running short and cities being too crowded. We should all stop blaming the auto manufacturers for building gas guzzlers and do our best to make a change through our actions. You could donate your car if possible, ride a bike to work or simply walk, anything that would cut your driving hours would be welcomed.

America's love for the auto

I do agree that American's love their cars. I'm just as guilty as the next. Personally I am all for less dependence on oil and would ambrace any alternate clean and cheap fuel source and in a perfect world sugar and bacon would be healthy food sources.
I too own a full sized truck but also own a 1997 Toyota Tercel as my commuter car. The truck is for play and the car is for work and daily driving. The car saves me a good deal of money on gas.
The freedom our cars and trucks provide us is what defines the American spirit. That freedom is why I will allways own a full sized, gas guzling truck. It allows me the freedom of the lifestyle that I choose and not one that is forced upon me. I hunt, camp, haul, drive in bad weather...and I do it with no problem. I do not see an electric powered truck ever doing that, not for a very long time and at least not at a cheaper, less environmentally safer way than the current gasoline engines.
If I chose to live in the inner city, depend on others to plow and shovel for me, ship my food to the local market near me, provide me utilities... oh and if I was a single man with no children with little responsibilities then yes I would own a 2 seater car that does nothing and I mean nothing else but take me from A to B . But that's not my lifestyle and I do not like people forcing their lifestyle upon me for their agendas.

Bigger Cars Are Safer

Do you think that the move to bigger cars has something to do with lower highway fatalities? Maybe the lower risk is worth the lower gas mileage? Especially if you are hauling kids from time to time.

People will optimize according to their desires not those of their betters who obviously know what is best for them.

And you know we are currently awash with oil in America (I believe we were a net exporter last year for the first time in almost 40 years)? What is the rush to force people to do something that is obviously not in their interest? Global warming? - Climategate!