Someone finally tells the truth about Congress mandating 35 MPG.
Is everyone ready for micro cars? Probably not!
I'm Breaking Your Heart
Jerry Flint 01.28.08, 12:00 AM ET
Solving the energy problem is easy if you pay no attention to the laws of physics. That's the wonder of our Congress. To pass is easy; to achieve is something else. This is where I break your green heart. You know that Congress passed a law ordering all cars and trucks to average 35 miles to the gallon by 2020. It won't happen.
Another part of that law mandates the production of 36 billion gallons a year of biofuels by 2022. That won't happen either.
It's not that automakers from Detroit to Tokyo to Stuttgart are just mean and don't want to do it. They don't know how. Of course, they don't dare complain or criticize the law. We must all be green and happy about it.
But there's just no way anyone subject to the laws of physics and automobile engineering can get a 5,000-pound pickup, or any mass-produced, reasonably priced sport utility near that weight, up to 35mpg.
Today the 2008 Honda (nyse: HMC - news - people ) Accord (weighing 3,570 pounds) has poorer fuel economy than last year's model, and Honda is Mr. Green. That new hybrid system on the General Motors (nyse: GM - news - people ) Chevy Tahoe SUV probably adds $10,000 to the cost (and 400 pounds) and gets it up to 20mpg. Yes, the fuel economy increase is terrific, near 50%--but we're up to only 20mpg on the four-wheeler, and that's nowhere near 35.
The best way to increase fuel economy (and reduce greenhouse gases, too) is to reduce the weight and engine size of the vehicles. Congress could pass a law ordering that no car weigh more than 1,750 pounds (a Toyota (nyse: TM - news - people ) Camry is in the 3,200-pound range), no truck weigh more than 2,500 pounds and no engine run more than 75 horsepower. Most Americans couldn't fit in such cars, but they would average 35mpg.
We could also lower the speed limit to 40 miles per hour nationally. That would do it, too, since engines would shrink, and air resistance is a lot lower at 40 than at 60.
Or we could impose a $5-a-gallon gasoline tax, which would push everyone into those tiny 35mpg cars--and have the advantage of pushing every congressman who voted for it out of office.
If all else fails, maybe we resort to the figures-don't-lie-but-liars-can-figure rule. Measure fuel economy not by what an engine does, but what it could do. For example, imagine that every engine were tuned to take E-85--meaning 85% ethyl alcohol and 15% gasoline--and that a car gets 21 miles to the gallon on E-85. But if we count only the gasoline in E-85, than it gets 140 miles per gallon of gasoline. That's one way to boost an average.
None of these things will happen, because Congress prefers something for nothing, or something that doesn't show up directly as a consumer's fee.
Of course, fuel economy is going to improve. The carmakers of the world are testing an enormous range of systems: diesel engines; gasoline engines with diesellike compressions; plug-in hybrids that can be fueled at night at home; hydrogen engines, some working off fuel cells; and start-stop systems that turn off the motor at stoplights. But there's still nothing that gets 4,000 or 5,000 pounds up to 35mpg.
The ambitious biofuel project, to increase such fuels to 36 billion gallons a year from 7 billion gallons today, is equally naive. Right now the only successful biofuel (in this country) is ethanol made from corn. And legislators from farm states aren't about to allow imports of sugar-based ethanol from Brazil. There is the belief that alcohol fuels can be made from other crops, like switchgrass. Maybe they can. The trouble is that no one has done it yet in serious quantities and at reasonable cost.
Growing transportation fuel in cornfields consumes a lot of fossil fuel, fertilizer, water and land. Also, it makes steaks very expensive. A gallon of ethanol has a lot less energy than a gallon of gasoline. This fact is supposed to be kept a secret, in the interest of national security, but some drivers have figured it out.
The state of California is a master of the feel-good law that doesn't happen. I recall a rule mandating that a sizable proportion of cars sold there be electric. The few electric cars that were produced ran, but the problem was that they just didn't run very far, so there was no serious market. The state's answer was, "Oh, well, never mind." Other people's time and money mean nothing to politicians.
I'm sorry to break your heart. Progress is being made, absolutely. But setting impossible targets makes real gains even harder to achieve