There had been rumors that the price of oil might climb as the year began. Few really expected it to be any more than the usual seasonal rise as the road travel season approached. After all, the refineries around the gulf coast had recovered from Katrina, hadn’t they? The Middle East hadn’t heated up any more than it had been over the last couple of years.
But by the end of the first quarter of 2007 the cost of fossil fuels took on a life of their own without any intervention by the OPEC cartel. People were getting pissed about the cost of gasoline and predictions were getting louder that it would not just be a seasonal adjustment.
The US and the EU were no longer the major consumers of crude oil. Now China had a huge population of car owners and it was growing every day. India was building a middle class that found itself with credit, steady jobs, and a yen for the western lifestyle. By the end of 2007 Russia would become the Mecca for automobile manufacturers to target as the new growth market, and the US market car market would start to stagnate.
Ford and GM would feel the pain and Chrysler would become the plaything of investors as Daimler sought to divest itself of the albatross. Toyota would rise to claim the US as its own kingdom just as the reality of an economy based on inflated house values and fantasy mortgages started to crumble.
In the 1980’s we saw muscle cars become emasculated pretenders and in the 1990’s car owners traded in their vans for sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks that could haul more stuff than Walmart could stock in a single aisle.
There was a brief flurry of import muscle in the mid 1990’s with cars like the Acura NSX, the 3000GT VR4, and the Toyota Supra. It all appeared to come and go until Subaru and Mitsubishi showed up with their rally bred street super sedans. The WRX STi and the Evolution MR brought affordable performance to a level not seen since the hay days of the sixties and this time they could corner like a snake slithering in snot. More performance came from the likes of GM. Even though the Firebird and Camaro disappeared from their showrooms, the Corvette remained and evolved into a sleek super car that delivered performance at a level far higher than its price tag suggested. For those with too much money there was the Ford GT.
By the end of 2007 we knew that Nissan would soon be delivering the GTR to the lucky few that could afford the insurance and fuel costs. Corvette would soon be tempting wallets with the ZR1 and over 600 horsepower. Could it get any better?
Maybe it could get a lot more confusing.
Gasoline priced dropped for a tantalizingly brief period and then continued to climb. This time no one was predicting that it was just a temporary aberration that would “normalize”. No, now you heard rumors that maybe OPEC’s reserve estimates were grossly overinflated. We watched as the money from the Middle East was invested in American banks to rescue them from the rewards of mortgage greed – and add diversity to the income stream of the Arab states.
Not to worry though. We would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by converting to renewable sources like ethanol and biodiesel. That is, until we found out there was no free lunch to be had.
The reality of E85 (ethanol fortified gasoline) was that it didn’t pack as much energy as gasoline so you couldn’t go as far without refilling. It also cost energy to produce. So much energy, that it was likely a net loss. On top of that it contributed to the rise in corn prices. This not only affected our neighbors to the south who count on it as a staple food, but the food giants in the US were unhappy to feel the pain of higher costs of high fructose corn syrup. This might be the one way to remove this corruption from our diet.
So what about biodiesel? The dream was to take all the used fry-o-lator oil from the franchised burger joints and turn it into clean burning diesel fuel that took care of the waste and reduced emissions. This seemed to work on a small scale and European countries decided to bet on it back in 2003 with the help of tax incentives. Similar tax credits have inspired the US producers of biodiesel. Only biodiesel isn’t only being made from the waste from McDonalds, Burger King, and the like.
After producing ten million metric tons of the stuff Europe’s producers have been able to unload only half of the stuff. The EU has plans on replacing 10% of transportation fuel with non-fossil fuels by 2020, but today can claim less than 2% with plenty of supply.
Like ethanol, biodiesel is being held responsible for expanded farming of fragile land in Asia to grow palm oil for the raw material to produce biodiesel. Rapeseed is used in 80% of Europe’s biodiesel and criticism is growing that this has lead to the inflation of land and food prices.
Meanwhile California (Schwartzenagerland) attempted to impose fuel economy standards on automobile manufacturers that were countermanded by the EPA. President Bush signed a 600 page energy bill that mandated a new CAFÉ standard of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The EU has produced its own standards based on carbon emissions rather than fuel economy.
In addition there are standards being proposed for mandatory rolling resistance of tires. Not only are tire pressure monitors going to be mandatory on cars and trucks, but in order to stretch fuel mileage tires must contribute by becoming less of a drag. That could mean higher tire pressures, narrower tires, and certainly less tread life.
Do you want to know how to get great fuel mileage? Don’t burn any.
If you must drive then drive something very light. Nothing improves gas mileage faster than reducing weight. American drivers have been living large with their SUV’s but with every 10% reduction in weight you can count on a 6% improvement in fuel economy. Unfortunately cars have been getting heavier and heavier, even the “small” ones. I think this is the result of more stringent crash standards as well as market driven demand for quiet luxury.
These new mileage standards could mean that we will see aluminum and carbon fiber become common elements of car construction. Gee, what will the exotic cars use next? Titanium? Kryptonite?
Unfortunately burning fuels, fossil or otherwise, in our vehicles is a losing proposition. I suspect that electric vehicle technology will evolve into vehicles that will make it possible to not only have zero emission cars and trucks, but also have performance. Quite a few examples of electric sports cars have come into being that have zero to sixty times in the sub four second category and sporty handling is not fuel dependant.
With electric cars you have some great battery technology and power management technology to look forward to. The source for electricity doesn’t have to be coal or oil either. Nor does it have to be nuclear. There is plenty of wind power and solar power to be had.
The military has several prototypes of electric and hybrid vehicles that are being developed for the battlefield. They offer stealth, low or no heat signature, and plenty of power.
Maybe my next car will be a titanium-framed, carbon fiber skinned, electric, all wheel drive (separate motors for each hub), computer-controlled rally car that accelerates from zero to 60 in less than 4 seconds and stops in 90 feet from 150 mph.