I just finished a 1,700-mile road trip from Tennessee to Texas and back. I rented a Nissan Altima and was pleasantly surprised that I was able to manage around 35 MPG throughout the trip. So I purchased roughly 49 gallons of gas at an average of $3.50 per gallon, meaning the trip cost $170 in fuel. If instead I had driven my seven-year-old SUV (which at best gets 24 MPG highway), it would have cost me an extra 20 gallons of gas – or $70 more.
That got me thinking about all the promises made about fuel efficiency. Laws were created to incentivize and encourage automakers to build cars that go farther on a tank of gas. Not much has happened, as Pew Environment Group notes in a graph borrowed from the EPA. From the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, there was virtually no improvement in fuel economy. By comparison, within the tech world, in that same time frame we’ve advanced from inputting data cards into mainframes to Googling anything we want to know on our smartphones.
So why aren’t we there yet? Is it some bias on the part of auto manufacturers to maintain the status quo? Our government not doing enough? Lobbyists getting in the way? Will it take too long to retool factories? Or is it consumer preference (or lack thereof)?
It appears to be a combination of these factors. For starters, it will take a long time to give up our dependence on fossil fuels. Since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels have powered our ever-steady march forward. It also appears that many consumers are not yet willing to pay the extra fees that come with owning an all-electric or hybrid vehicle – in particular, the cost of a battery powerful enough to continually power a car. That said, there have been small successes.
Take the example of Better Place, an Israeli start-up that promised to bring many more electric-powered autos to Israel’s streets. Better Place assuaged a lot of its nay-sayers by developing battery-swap stations, where depleted batteries could be replaced in as little as five minutes. The company retains ownership of the battery, as the batteries are constantly swapped out and recharged. Because of this unique battery model, the company has been able to keep the cost of the car down.
What the company hasn’t been able to do is gain enough support from U.S. government officials (both at the state and local levels) to gain the necessary approvals for increasing the number of battery booths and other support throughout the country. Furthermore, unlike the U.S., Israel does not provide tax breaks for EVs. Without this support, the company has yet to turn a profit, and its senior management has been hit with a revolving door of sorts.
At the end of the day, it seems that consumers need to be led to shallow water so they can dip a toe in. Fully electric vehicles that don’t run into range issues, and that perform at the same level as gasoline-powered vehicles, are a long way off. But they could be a lot closer if the right steps are taken. By all accounts, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are turning heads.
I have a hard time believing that people would ignore a comfortable, well-functioning car that could get 70 MPG. Every change made in the name of fuel economy, however, seems to be a sacrifice pushed onto the consumer. Cars are smaller, less comfortable, have less power, etc. It’s an incremental creep toward the goal, which truly means less real innovation. Why not look at tech? Multiple versions of products are created and tested, but the market gravitates to the best and most efficient. Why not adopt this developmental style for automobiles?
Oh, and by the way, where is the jetpack I was promised?