2007 – A Look Back

 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.

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12 Responses to 2007 – A Look Back

  1. Jim, you got a few things wrong about E85. First, it is a bona fide alternative fuel, not fortified gasoline — that’s E10. It’s true that E85 has fewer BTUs than gasoline. So what? Gasoline has fewer BTUs than diesel. Ethanol’s role in rising food costs is debatable, a number of special interest groups find it handy as an all-purpose scapegoat. Clearly, prices have risen, but so have petroleum prices. All credible studies today show that ethanol produces more energy than it takes to grow, distill and transport it — the same can’t always be said of gasoline.

    Most impoertantly, when used in a flex-fuel vehicle, E85 reduces air pollution considerably.

  2. Esteban says:

    Jim, I must say: WOW! Excellent retrospective.

    Bob, what about the toll monocultures have on the soil, not to mention deforestation and potential famine.

    I’m afraid bio-fuels are not the answer, just a lousy replacement for Oil. It has several unwanted side effects that most people (shall I say environmentalists?) neglect to acknowledge.

    One would think that after a couple of hundred years of abusing the environment we would of learned to try to weight all consequences on our decisions, yet I fear we’re still quite narrow sighted.

    I do agree with Jim, the best prospective future is light electric cars powered by environmentally-friendly generators. Maybe Scientists will nail cold fusion and all our problems will be gone (or blow half the planet trying!) 🙂

  3. Tim says:

    Re: E85

    There was an interesting post over at AutoBlogGreen reporting a study that shows some vehicles getting better highway fuel economy with E20 or E30. They used four different vehicles – Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, regular Chevy Impala and Flex-Fuel Chevy Impala.

    What’s interesting to note is that the Flex-Fuel Impala achieved it’s highest MPG of 27.07 on E20. Regular gas got 23.48 and E85 got 17.74. Yaaayy E85

    @ Bob from NAMBLA – “It’s true that E85 has fewer BTUs than gasoline. So what? Gasoline has fewer BTUs than diesel.” ……. “Clearly, prices have risen, but so have petroleum prices.” Those answers don’t sound like “bona fide” explanations for some of the major concerns over E85 as a gasoline alternative. If you’re going to chime in, I think everyone would appreciate some facts and details behind your arguments – not just “So what?” or “so this” or “so that.” Cheers and happy holidays

  4. jimsgarage says:

    Bob –

    You are correct; E85 is primarily ethanol in makeup. It is Eighty-five percent ethanol and the rest is gasoline.

    It is an alcohol-derived fuel made from corn, sugar cane, and other feedstocks. It is a high-octane fuel with low greenhouse emissions. It is difficult to transport in pipelines and requires large crop volumes.

    Ethanol and biodiesel cannot be transported through pipelines that carry gasoline and diesel because they leach water and other contaminants that would render them unusable. Ethanol and biodiesel get lower mileage per gallon than conventional gasoline and diesel, and their corrosive effects have led some auto and truck manufacturers to shy away from offering warranties to drivers who use gasoline blended with high percentages of ethanol, or diesel blended with high quantities of biodiesel.

    Those nasty big oil companies are actually trying to remedy those shortcomings. A fuel made from feedstocks such as cornstalks, grasses, and other non-food products would reduce reliance on corn. Plants such as jatropha, switchgrass, and perhaps algae might be usable. The hope is to produce fuel with better mileage per gallon and flow through existing pipelines.

    My feeling is that these gasoline alternatives are not bad, but not the real answer either. Combustion engines are not efficient really. They demand that you change the lubricants on a regular basis and also require cooling systems to offload the heat energy that doesn’t contribute directly to power.

    Me, I love the sound of a racing engine and the smell of all that goes with it, but I also recognize that doesn’t mean it is the best answer in the future.

    Thank you Bob, for your opinion, it is important.

  5. markitude says:

    Jim,

    There is no free lunch or perfect solution certainly as Esteban points out. Electricity is a great energy transfer medium – clean and fairly safe. Generating it with present infrastructure options still returns to many of the same current sources that all have flaws.

    Coal – still a polluter and a bad one in comparison – supplies will last a while, but it won’t last forever.

    Natural gas and propane – cleaner – but still not zero emiters and not unlimited

    Nuclear – what to do with the waste, debateable safety issues, and not unlimited either.

    Wind – dependent upon weather patterns, and there are environmental aspects to the wind turbines – there are very vocal people who debate the threat to avians.

    Hydro-electric. Interesting – wonder why we haven’t built more plants? Wonder why we can’t harness the tidal forces? I’m sure doing so would damage some sea life.

    No doubt – the future is going to require some compromises. from a societal point – we are (and myself VERY much included) so confined in our thinking about the freedom of the motor car, and the feel of the internal combustion engine, yet we’ve only had it for a hundred odd years. I wonder what the performance enthusiasts of the horse and buggy days thought when the first cars arrived?

  6. jimsgarage says:

    Very interesting thoughts. Maybe hydrogen would be better suited to powering electrical power plants instead of trying to use it to fuel rolling stock.

    If carbon is the bad guy then hydrogen won’t have any to release as part of combustion. It has a lot of logistical and containment issues when you try to fuel a motor vehicle, but a power plant might be easier to work with. Then the electricity generated would be free of cabon emissions.

    Just a thought.

  7. sheilaann says:

    How about the Zenn car, suitable for urban centers. It’s a start.

  8. jimsgarage says:

    Fortunately there are a lot of people inspired to bring electric cars back on the scene. Be sure to read about the Tango, too. https://jimsgarage.wordpress.com/2007/10/06/green-cars-you-can-tango-with-this-one/

  9. jessapaloozax3 says:

    jhjvbhjvgvuhvjhvjhvugvutvtyuuitfctrxutxckc sup 🙂

  10. jimsgarage says:

    For those of you who aren’t sure about E85 or even think you are sure please check out this news article:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22301669/

  11. Rodney says:

    I’m driving down US 64 just this pass weekend. I see in the short distance a small speck ahead of me. At first, I looked as though someone had golf cart on the road. But as I got closer, I found it was one of the smallest cars I had ever seen. The Smart car, a small fuel efficient two seater. It actually looked pretty cool. If you haven’t seen one you should check it out… http://www.smartusa.com. Seeing this little car, actually has brought something to my attention….

    Something I have noticed here lately is with gas creeping ever so much more each day, automakers have all of a sudden started popping up with these gas saving, energy efficient cars all over the place. Almost, every automaker has one or has one on the drawing board. For instance, there is the Suzuki Swift here, the Toyoto Yaris, the Honda Fit, the Nissan Versa, and Daimler’s Smart car. It is almost like someone turn on energy saving fuel efficient switch. I feel like I have stepped back in time to the late 70s and awaiting a Ford Pinto or AMC Gremlin to come around the corner. I not complaining so much in that I am not happy to see new energy efficient vehicles, I think it is great. However I am disappointed, why now. Is it that the bus diving, SUV soccer moms of America and the gas gosling oversize, can’t fit in the garage, truck owners are finally feeling the pinch of prices. I knew we were doomed when Porsche decided to make an SUV……..”Why”. Demand perhaps, I’m not so convinced. I think it is more of build the biggest and they will come.

    Where were all these gas saving mini vehicles five years ago? It is almost as if automakers have had this card of energy efficient solutions hidden in the vault of secrets, waiting for gas to hit just the right price.

    My point is that automakers should have been producing these fuel efficient cars 5 and 10 years ago, instead of seeing who can create the biggest, roomiest SUV on the market. If they had, perhaps gas prices would not be as they are now. I hate to be the one to tell Auto industry, but the earth isn’t making any more oil and that part has never changed. Automakers too play a big part in the consumption of oil through the efficiency of the products they bring to market. It is a responsibly that needs to be taken seriously even when gas prices are low. And, we as consumers we need to also understand that sometimes bigger is not always better even if you can afford it.

    Conservation only works when everyone works together, both consumers and producers.

  12. Dan says:

    We’ve got 10% ETHANOL in our fuel here in Florida. I have a well modified Corvette, I can’t tell you how many times this junk has caused my idle to drop and my car to stall.

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