The Drive Toward Fuel Economy

Over the past two decades, the automotive industry has been ablaze with innovation — from cars that park themselves to cars that ‘clean up’ after themselves. Literally, the automobile has grown smarter as technology has enabled manufacturers to rethink their old ways. Unfortunately, the foresight ends there.

Recently, two bills designed to increase fuel economy standards in the U.S. were introduced in the House of Representatives and promptly shot down. With them, the hope that industry standards would finally catch up with innovations in the field diminished as well. Indeed, Congress has dragged its feet for far too long in forcing automakers to improve fuel economy.

Unfortunately, this latest retreat in Congress is not the first time proposed changes — changes so minor they were not nearly enough to begin with — have hinted at improvement, only to fade rapidly. In his State of the Union speech in January, President Bush suggested a 4% annual increase in the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks by 2017. His words did little to catalyze any concrete change. Later, a proposal to increase fuel economy standards by 4% annually from 2020 to 2031 died an early death in the House. In short, the U.S. is no better off today than it was 20 years ago as far as fuel efficiency is concerned.

Compare the U.S. to similar economies: European fleets already average 43 miles per gallon, and Japanese fleets are reaching 50 miles per gallon. While there are only two car models in the U.S. that achieve greater than 40 miles per gallon (both hybrid vehicles), there are more than 113 such vehicles in Europe.

The most astounding fact is that many of the European high-fuel-economy vehicles are produced by U.S. carmakers. How can the government let manufacturers continue to convince the nation that a fuel economy of more than 35 miles per gallon is difficult to achieve? Any rational person should not be willing to accept these manufacturers’ excuses.

If existing technology for vehicles with higher fuel economy has succeeded in Europe and parts of Asia in terms of both safety and commercial profit, why not implement policies to make similar vehicles more accessible in the U.S.? The success of the Toyota Prius and other hybrids across the U.S. shows that there is verifiable demand for more fuel-efficient cars.

Equally important is the fact that hybrid technology is not the only way to reach higher fuel economy; nearly 50% of the cars sold in Europe are clean diesel. Such models not only provide a much higher fuel economy than gasoline models, but also run faster and more efficiently and last longer.

A closer look at the diesel industry shows that innovations such as the nationwide availability of low-sulfur diesel and the commercial success of diesel particulate filters (which remove more than 99% of pollutants from diesel exhaust) have made clean diesels cleaner than other vehicles on the road. They also provide nearly 20% to 30% better fuel efficiency than gasoline engines, and low CO2 emissions.

Clearly, the barrier to improving U.S. fuel economy is not technological; the real obstacle is lack of political will. Automakers are demonstrating a remarkable ability to resist any changes in mileage standards, and instead are producing larger and heavier cars with unnecessary amenities, such as chilled glove boxes. A better way to improve fuel economy would be for the government to let market forces do the work, which is what Europe has done so successfully.

Like Europe, the U.S. should price fuel at its actual cost. It is estimated that the U.S. government subsidizes fuel at a cost of roughly $3 to $10 per gallon, if one considers all the tax breaks accorded to the oil companies as well as the costs associated with regulatory oversight, pollution cleanup, and liability. The real price of gasoline in the U.S., without the subsidies, would not differ much from the $6 per gallon in Europe.

What would you drive if you had to pay more than $100 the next time you filled up your tank? I know that I would look for better performance with higher fuel economy.

Bilal Zuberi is vice president at GEO2 Technologies Inc. of Woburn. This article first appeared in the Boston Globe.