39 Miles Per Gallon

Today the President announced that new cars would be required to achieve 39 miles per gallon in a few years time.  Given the current state of America’s automobile industry this was an optimistic road to take.

I would be delighted to achieve mileage in that range as I am sure most of us would.  We need to acknowledge though that to achieve higher mileage we will have to pay in other ways.

The fastest way to improve motor vehicle’s fuel consumption is to make it as light as possible.  Unfortunately motor vehicles have steadily been gaining weight over the years and it is not just the SUV’s and full-sized pickup trucks.  Sedans and coupes have also put on pounds.  A big factor for the weight gain is due to more stringent crash requirements by the Federal government.

Even before the new mileage requirements go into effect new roll-over requirements will challenge the car companies.  Frontal and side impact requirements continue to demand more from automotive design. 

Engineers can add more metal and weight to achieve these requirements or resort to more exotic materials that, while far lighter, will be more costly to produce and manufacture. 

More “air bags” (SRS) positioned about the cabin require more expensive design and computer networking within each vehicle.

It is true that there are new technologies that are yet to be applied broadly to the internal combustion engines sold as power plants to US motor vehicles.  Technologies such as direct injection, that will cut fuel consumption and emissions.  More exotic methods of controlling and varying valve timing will come into play as well.

Aerodynamics can also be improved, but that factor only comes in to play at speeds that, well, consume more fuel.

We can add more hybrids and pure electric vehicles to the mix to enhance the fleet average, too.

If you are expecting me to say that this new national requirement is a bad thing you are going to be disappointed.  The stated goal is a good one.  It would be good to reduce “greenhouse gas emissions” (what ever they really are) and it would be good to get more miles out of a given unit of fuel.  But when you ask for all that you must be careful that you understand all that you are asking for and what it will cost in other areas to achieve it.

Would you be willing to give up safety in order to have a lighter vehicle?  Would you be willing to live with slow acceleration and limited top speed so that fuel consumption would be enhanced?  Would you be willing to pay twice what you pay now for a motor vehicle so that you could have everything you have now and better mileage? 

You didn’t hear any push-back from the automobile companies because they know that their very existence is now in the hands of the Federal government. 

All the desires for lower fuel consumption, enhanced safety, lower emissions, etc. may very well be achieved, but only as measured at the vehicle itself.  Do your math so that it includes the emissions, safety, and fuel used during design, manufacture, transportation, and distribution.  There is no free lunch.  It all has to come from somewhere.

We live in interesting times.

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5 Responses to 39 Miles Per Gallon

  1. Pingback: 39 Miles Per Gallon | Cars....

  2. Jim says:

    I once owned a 1983 Renault Alliance. It got 40 mpg highway, 35 around town. Its 1.4 hamster, er, liter engine moved the car to 60 mph in north of 30 seconds. I loved that mileage, but really hated that acceleration. It wasn’t enough to get out of my own way! It was great for around town, not so great out on the open road.

    And that’s kind of what I’m afraid will come from this initiative, at least at first. Slug-slow cars that will be okay for running to Menards but not something you want to take out of town.

    Even though I’m reminded of the really super lousy cars we got in the late 70s and early 80s after the government started to get into the act, I’m also reminded that automakers did, over time, come up with ways to bring performance back while still meeting the regs. I assume that this will happen again. We will end up driving crappy cars for a while, until the industry figures out what to do.

  3. Tim says:

    The IIHS recently ran a new batch of crash tests, pitting compact cars against their slightly larger siblings. Link Surprise surprise, despite all the safety widgetry a small car gets creamed even against a “mid-size” sedan these days. Personally I’m happy to forgo MPG for safety in the meantime.

    I have to agree with “other Jim” above me here – as automakers scramble to react we will likely see clodgy solutions meant to meet government regulations and it will take some time for more elegant, integrated engineering – ala 1970-1980’s when the highest output V8 from Detroit was in the 200HP range.

  4. Noel says:

    Pretty much agree with all here. I like getting good mileage and liked it even more when gas hit $4/gal last summer. My trusty turbo Saab goes pretty good and gets 24 local, 28 highway at about 75. My wife’s Saab wagon does 32 mpg at 75 highway. And they’re safe, comfy and have plenty of poke when you tromp on the loud pedal. Both cars will also tow a 2000 trailer. Try that in a Prius or Insight.

    A fleet average of 39 will put a lot of people in commuter cars that are small and get great mileage. And their small size will require people to have larger, thirstier cars for other uses. I can kinda see that, but the price of the small cars has to be reasonable and they have to be safe. No one’s gonna pay $25-30K for an underpowered shoebox of a commuting rat just to get 40 mpg.

    I think 39 mpg is probably too big a step. 32-35 would have been better, with 39+ maybe 3-4 years further out. To get to 39 mpg I think we really have to put lots more diesels in the mix. They are real cars. I’ve driven some nice turbo diesels in Europe and the Prius here, and I’d take the diesel any day. And all engines will have to be turbocharged. Once you get used to a turbo motor it’s hard to drive anything else.

  5. markitude says:

    Lot of thoughts on this.

    I’m not weighing in on whether or not the 39 mpg was the right move or not, but will offer the following observations…

    1) If only incremental improvements are called for, then people tend to approach via an evolutionary route. If a really bold target is posed, it forces re-engineering – a challenge to redefine all the original design assumptions. Sometimes a conventionally unattainable goal is needed to reach a breakthrough. Whether or not 39 is such a goal, I can’t say.

    2) As Jime (Jim’s Garage) points out, meeting all the safety, milage, performance, feature / function requirements is likely to drive up the price significantly. This might be an unspoken objective to make electrics / hybrids more cost competitive. I.e., in the short term, if you can’t make the electric more price competitive, make the gas or diesel models more expensive. I understand that if people bought electrics in volume, the economy of scale might come into play and lower the costs, and so something is needed to jumpstart the cycle. However, I think handicapping is a poor approach.

    3) All things being equal, I agree with Noel that diesel has some advantages. I think some of the advantages exist because much of the fleet still runs on gas. If the majority went diesel, then I think we’d see a price run up on diesel and might be in a worse dollar / mile or (km) situation in terms of cost to go a given distance. That’s not a reason not to do it, but just a point to consider the reactionary force to any initiative.

    4) The oil companies don’t plan to lose money, or see their stock erode. In order for a stock to go up, earnings must be going up. If it can’t be done by volume (if we’ve passed peak oil) then it will be done by price. While the government is pushing us to drive more fuel efficient vehicles, which might mean we would use less oil, then it follows that the price of the fuel will also rise. Normal supply / demand economics don’t work here I’m afraid. If we use half as much, it will cost twice as much (or more). Where does that leave us? Still needing a viable alternative to keep the price under control

    5) Which brings us to electric. While many view it as a panacea, and I won’t argue against the effeciency, and realative clean nature of it (still have to generate somewhere), I am concerned that the utilities, and secondary infrastructures will exert an equal or greater monopoly force than the oil companies. While you can buy from Exxon/Mobile, Shell/BP, Texaco/Chevron today, how many local electric providers do you have to choose from?

    I’m not arguing against change, but just really hope that we (as a society and a world) are thinking this all through carefully.

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