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Settled

September 10th, 2011 Comments off

Not long after my last post on CAFE regulations (where I mentioned that the White House was leaning towards a 2025 target of 56.2 mpg), the matter was “settled,” at a proposed 54.5 mpg.  (The difference doesn’t amount to much – less than 6/100ths of a gallon of gasoline for every 100 miles that a vehicle travels.  But, the lowering of the goal was enough to get some of the major auto manufacturers to fall in line and support the proposed regulation – at least publicly.)

Behind the scenes, however, automakers and other opponents to tighter CAFE rules complain that the target is too tough, and that it will lead to slow, underpowered cars that people won’t want to buy at significantly increased costs.  Being a realist, I tend to think that – yes, it’s true that new, advanced technology does tend to cost more than the old, but the benefit far outweighs the cost.  On the other hand …

Reading my latest issue of Autoweek magazine, I came across an article about the new Range Rover Evoque, which states that its 4-cylinder engine “generates 240 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque, which is more than the 233 hp and 234 lb-ft from the 3.2-liter six currently in the Land Rover LR2.”  It’s also rated at 24 mpg, vs 17 mpg for the LR2.  Now in this case, the Evoque does come at a premium (approximately $44k as compared to the LR2’s $37k), but it’s a completely new model, in a higher-end segment than the LR2, and you’re paying for more than just a more powerful and more efficient engine.  So …

A few pages later is an article about the new Jeep Wrangler, which gets a new V6 for 2012.  As compared to the 2011 powerplant, Autoweek tells us its “output grows by 83 hp and torque gains 23 lb-ft, to 260 lb-ft.  That blows the old 3.8-liter engine and its 202-hp, 237-lb-ft raings off the trail.  Despite the power boost, fuel economy also increases to up to 21 mpg on the highway.  The base price remains the same…”  More power?  More efficiency?  Same price?  And then …

There’s the next article about the new Mercedes Benz M-class.  Since car mags are so good at telling us what’s changed between the new model and the old, let’s see what Autoweek has to say.  “Power is up, along with fuel economy, in both versions that will be offered at launch in the United States.  The gasoline direct-injection, 3.5-liter V6 ML350 4Matic, with 302 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, has an estimated fuel economy of 17 mpg city and 22 mpg highway (versus 15/20 mpg in the outgoing model).  The ML350 Bluetec 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel has an output of 240 hp and 455 lb-ft of torque and estimated fuel consumption of 20/25 mpg (versus 18/25 for 2011).  Pricing stays the same for 2012…”

It’s not like these are isolated, special cases.  Automakers are great at increasing efficiency and power without increasing cost.  They’ve been doing it for years.  It’s just that they’ve been using that ability to make our cars bigger, heavier, and faster, rather than making any significant gains in fuel economy.  As a result, they now have a long way to go to meet upcoming CAFE regulations.

The automakers (well, not all of them) publicly support the new CAFE targets.    My guess is they’ll find a way to comply.  From a fuel consumption standpoint (i.e., the y-axis on this graph), most of the work has already been done.

 

Curmudgeon

July 6th, 2011 Comments off

Apparently, all of my blog posts since February of this year have involved me complaining about someone else for getting it wrong.  From the media’s promulgation of inaccurate information, to Saab’s inability to correctly mount tires, it seems all I’ve done recently is look for ways to point fingers and criticize.  And that’s just not healthy.  In the midst of it, ThatCarBlog‘s second anniversary came and went (my Inaugural post was June 26, 2009) without so much as a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back.

So as I begin my third year of randomly typing words about cars whenever I get a few spare moments, I’m going to be more positive.  And that means looking for opportunities to point out when other folks get it right.

Roland Hwang got it right.  In his June 29 post on the National Resources Defense Council Staff Blog, Mr. Hwang describes the auto industry push-back as a result of the Obama administration’s suggestion that the CAFE regulations for light-duty passenger cars and trucks in 2025 should be 56.2 mpg (which is eerily similar to the push-back at every past attempt by the feds to regulate the auto industry, whether it be seat-belts, air-bags, catalytic converters, or the removal of lead from our gasoline).  There’s really nothing I can add here – Roland beat me to it.  Click the link and read it for yourself!  (The irony isn’t lost on me that, in my attempt to commend another for a job-well-done, it is to some degree Mr. Hwang’s criticism of the auto-industry that I am commending…)

But why do we use miles-per-gallon (mpg) as the metric to measure fuel efficiency?  It’s the amount of fuel we use that is of primary concern – not how many miles we drive. Since the dependent variable (gallons) is in the denominator of the mpg metric, we get a skewed sense of actual fuel efficiency.  As cars get more fuel efficient, people overestimate the benefit of additional mpg improvements. [Richard Larrick and Jack Soll, of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, wrote about this “MPG Illusion” a couple of years ago, and it’s worth a read.  For example, most people tend to think that improving a vehicle from 34 mpg to 50 mpg (a 16 mpg improvement) would result in greater fuel savings than an improvement from 18 mpg to 28 mpg (a difference of 10 mpg).  In actuality, it is the latter case that provides more benefit – more than double the fuel savings of the 16 mpg improvement in the already-efficient 34 mpg vehicle.]

The reason for this can be seen in the graph below.  The big-red-line illustrates how mpg (on the x-axis) relates to fuel-consumption (in gallons per 100 miles, on the y-axis).  On the left (steep) side of the curve, small mpg gains result in large reductions in fuel consumption.  However, as cars become more efficient (and we move to the right side of the curve), it takes quite a large mpg improvement to result in any significant fuel reduction benefits.

 

So, what does this mean in the context of CAFE regulations?  When NHTSA implemented the first regulations (of 18 mpg) for model year 1978, it meant passenger cars would use about 5.5 gallons of gasoline to go 100 miles.  Seven years later, the CAFE regs were 27.5 mpg – a nearly 10 mpg improvement, resulting in a fuel consumption benefit of nearly 2 gallons per 100 miles.  The regulations stagnated here (and actually went down slightly) until 2011, when they started rising further, to 39 mpg for 2016.  This 14.2 mpg improvement over the 1985 regulation saves just under 1.5 gallons of gasoline per 100 miles.  (Notice that?  The 14.2 mpg improvement between 1985 and 2016 actually saved less fuel than the 10 mpg improvement between 1978 and 1985.)

For 2025, the administration is proposing a 56.2 mpg standard.  (This is the combined target, for both passenger cars and light trucks, unlike the previous numbers that I cited, which are just for passenger cars.  Sorry for the inconsistency.)  While this may seem like an insurmountable increase – cars must improve by 17.2 mpg in just 9 years! – it represents only a 0.8 gallon reduction in fuel consumption per 100 miles of driving.  Relative to the other CAFE regulations, that doesn’t seem so bad.

CAFE is a complicated – and dry – subject.  Which means “Part 2” of my dissertation on it will have to wait until later.  Stay tuned!

Categories: Fuel Efficiency, Policy Tags:

(Un)Fit to Print

July 1st, 2011 Comments off

The majority of folks these days get their news and information from some form of mainstream media outlet.  Which is a shame. Because, while most of us (myself included) assume “they must know what they’re talking about,” when it comes to subjects about which we ourselves have no expertise, it’s on those occasions when they so ignorantly cover a topic of which we DO have intimate knowledge that we then call into question their comprehension of basically anything.

I know stuff about cars.  Alex Taylor III does not.

In a June 27 Fortune Magazine online article (also published on CNN.com), Alex The Third writes about how all the Chevy Volt enthusiasts out there are incredibly misguided because, although the Volt can travel an average of 35 miles on electricity alone, it only gets 32 mpg in the city (36 mpg highway) once the battery is depleted and the gasoline engine turns on.  The upcoming plug-in version of the Toyota Prius, on the other hand, can be expected to get 51 mpg city / 48 mpg highway (same as the current “regular hybrid” Prius) once its battery is depleted after 13 miles of electric driving.  Thus, Mr. 3 contends:  “On trips of 13 miles or less, the Prius plug-in and Volt deliver the same all-electric mpg: zero.  On trips between 13 miles and 35 miles in length, the Volt beats the Prius.  But after 35 miles, the Prius handily outscores the Volt.”

Unfortunately, Alex has failed to understand simple math. The actual cumulative fuel consumption of the plug-in Prius as compared to the Chevy Volt is shown below.  (I’ve used Taylor’s assumptions here, except for the 32/36 mpg that he cites for the Volt.  Although that’s what Popular Mechanics experienced, the EPA figure is 36/37 mpg, and since he uses the EPA figure for the Prius, we might as well be consistent.)

See, the Prius driver doesn’t suddenly overcome the Volt driver with respect to fuel saved at the 35 mile mark.  It takes quite a few miles of the Volt burning gasoline before the break-even point is reached.  In fact, one must drive 97 miles before any fuel-savings is realized by the Prius compared to the Volt.  Which is a lot more than most people drive each day.

But this isn’t even the full story.  I’ve driven both the Volt, and the plug-in Prius (in near-production form).  The architecture of the Volt lets you accelerate hard on electric-power alone.  It lets you reach triple-digit speeds with no help from the gasoline engine.  It has a true all-electric driving range of around 35 miles.  On the other hand, the plug-in Prius is largely the same as the conventional Prius, but with a larger battery.  The low power of its electric motor means that, if you press the accelerator more than just a little, the gasoline engine turns on.  Due to mechanical limitations of the motor-generator attached to the sun-gear of the planetary gearset in its power-split transmission, its electric-only speed is limited to 62 mph.  So if you’re on the freeway (and not stuck in D.C. traffic), the gasoline engine will turn on.  If you try to pass someone, the gasoline engine will turn on.  If you try to drive it at all like a normal person drives a normal car on a normal road, the gasoline engine will turn on.  The 13-mile “electric range” really isn’t.  This pushes the break-even mileage well beyond my generously calculated 97-mile mark.

Don’t get me wrong – the Prius (especially the plug-in version, which is not yet available) is a technically sophisticated, well-engineered vehicle that offers incredible fuel economy, with an internal combustion engine that is more advanced and efficient than that in the Volt.  And it’s true that the charge-sustaining MPG numbers for the Volt are somewhat disappointing (although that’s the penalty for lugging around a large 35-mile battery).  But Alex asserts – in Fortune Magazine – that the Prius is “a better idea” than the Volt, and that the numerous accolades the Volt has received are “an excess of praise in the wrong place.”

Which simply illustrates that he doesn’t know much about either car.

Contrast

June 27th, 2011 Comments off

Last month, Autoblog Green writer Eric Loveday wrote about an interview with Bob Lutz – former Ford/Chrysler/BMW executive, most known for his recently-ended stint at General Motors where he retired as Vice Chairman of Global Product Development.  Now, as a car-guy, I’ve always sort of admired Maximum Bob.  He’s a car-guy as much as a businessman, and he oversaw the development of more than a few worthwhile vehicles in his career.  But, he does have some flaws in his thinking, which are painfully revealed in the Loveday interview…

Bob Lutz

Bob’s a climate-change skeptic, and it shows in his opinions related to CAFE regulations and the federal government’s role in the auto industry.  He says of the initial CAFE rules from the 1970’s,The feds basically handed our market to the Japanese.”  He then describes how the American automakers made perfectly desirable vehicles until CAFE came about, forcing the domestic industry to abruptly redesign and re-engineer everything in order to comply.  And since change is hard, American auto quality suffered.  He also blames the State Department for granting Japan a favorable exchange-rate, making American competitiveness even more difficult.  (I’m no economist, but I’m pretty sure the State Department doesn’t set exchange rates.  Am I wrong?)

Bob describes the U.S. federal government as the only one in the world that is hostile to its own auto industry because of the policies it places “against” the automakers, born of what he calls a complete lack of understanding of what is technologically feasible.  He describes a mandate of 42 mpg by 2025 as physically impossible, tantamount to mandating that all cars have to “hover off the highway by two inches.”  (For what it’s worth, 42 mpg is the below the range of what NHTSA has been considering as the 2025 CAFE rule; instead, the agency has been considering improvements of 3%-6% per year beginning in 2017 within the realm of possibility, equating to 47 mpg to 62 mpg by 2025.  Additionally, today the White House “unofficiallyreleased a proposed CAFE target of 56.2 mpg.  I wonder what Bob thinks about that?  …Actually, I’m pretty sure I already know…)

Bill Ford

In contrast, Bill Ford – Executive Chairman of Ford Motor Company – recently spoke at the TED2011 conference, and penned an opinion piece on CNN.com, describing the global gridlock we face as the number of cars on the planet doubles or quadruples over the coming decades from the nearly 1 billion vehicles we have now.  Bill accurately describes the downside:  traffic jams, squandered time, stifled economic opportunity, and the resulting loss of mobility options and lower standard of living.  He then suggests a few solutions:  better mass transit systems, smart cars, smart infrastructure, and cooperation among corporations, entrepreneurs, NGOs, universities, and governments.  In stark opposition to Lutz’s tack, Ford anticipates the unsustainability of the current paradigm, and envisions possibilities to overcome the challenge.  (Lutz, on the other hand, only envisions external factors as the cause of difficulty for his industry.)

The contrast between these two auto executives – and their view of the world – couldn’t be more apparent.  It’s a good thing for GM that Lutz is now a former executive.

Fake Hondas

August 23rd, 2010 Comments off

When Hyundai entered the North American auto market in the mid-late’80’s, my initial impression was, “Who are they fooling?!  Nobody’s going to mistake that piece of crap for a Honda!”  I assumed, given the similarities in their name – and their cars’ badging – that they were attempting to capture the segment of the car market made up of consumers who thought they were buying a Honda weren’t capable of thought.  Consumers quickly realized that Hyundais weren’t Hondas, however.  Honda had gained a reputation for well-built, reliable vehicles, while Hyundais were quickly discovered to be poorly built, unreliable, and basically not worth the low price in their window stickers.

That was twenty years ago. So, what’s changed since then?  Well, Hyundais have.  After a few faulty starts, they’ve successfully moved into the luxury market with the Genesis.  They’ve also legitimately moved into the performance market with the Genesis Coupe.  And now, they’ve created the 2011 Sonata – a high-feature car for the masses that’s actually quite attractive.  They hired IAV Automotive Engineering (whose clients also include Bentley) to help them trim weight from the Sonata.  Since the car is only available with a 4-cylinder, the engine cradle structure didn’t have to be designed to accommodate any optional V6 – allowing a reduction in mass that translates in weight reductions elsewhere (such as the braking system) without a performance compromise.  (I love whole-systems thinking!)  All of this results in a car that has a little more power than a similarly featured Honda Accord (its most direct competitor), gets slightly better highway fuel efficiency (35 vs. 34 mpg), weighs approximately 100 pounds less, and is arguably more attractive.  The fact that the Sonata combines the impressive 200 horsepower 2.4 liter 4-cylinder (with continuously variable valve timing) with a 6-speed automatic transmission, and an SE trim-level that actually comes with performance goodies like stiffer springs, better shocks, and larger anti-roll bars, makes the $2k discount relative to the Accord all the more impressive.

A 10-year, 100,000 mile powertrain warrantyInitial Quality Ratings at the top of their class? What’s not to like? …Well, there’s that whole “no available V6” point where Honda has the advantage.  Then again, the 274 horsepower 2.0 turbo due out later in the model year should fix that.  And still reach 34 mpg.  …A fake Honda indeed!

2011 Hyundai Sonata

Piety

April 7th, 2010 Comments off

On my commute to work this morning, a Toyota Prius passed by me in the HOV lane.  (It wasn’t traveling at a high-rate of speed, so I suspect the throttle was not stuck open.)  The personalized license plate on the Prius read “H8 GAS“.  Although I could only see the back of the driver’s head, I’m quite certain his expression bore a certain degree of smugness.

The gas-hating Prius-driver obviously feels he is doing right by the environment by purchasing one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles available.  (I mean, he did go so far as to plaster the motivation for his good eco-deed on the back of his car!)  The irony here, however, is that this driver sat alone in his Toyota, taking advantage of the policy that’s in place in most major metropolitan areas that allow drivers of hybrid vehicles to travel in the HOV lanes regardless of the number of vehicle occupants.  Meanwhile, I was motoring down the carpool lane while seated on a bus – powered by natural gas – along with several dozen neighbors.  (Once disembarking from the bus, we all boarded a subway – powered by electricity.)

Now, I don’t want to fault the Prius driver too much.  Perhaps he had a good reason for taking up space in the HOV lanes today.  And he did, afterall, make a good vehicle purchasing decision from an environmental standpoint.  I do have to question his taste in license-plate personalization, however. It exudes the same self-righteousness as the stock broker whose plate says MONYMAKR.  Or the Christian’s whose plate says FORGIVEN.  …Or the urologist’s whose says GR8FNGRS

I also have to question the HEVs-in-HOVs policy that so many people exploit.  Much like Cash for Clunkers, the intent is a legitimate one (to accelerate the deployment of fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles), and it has been somewhat successful – many folks buy hybrid vehicles solely for the privilege of traveling solo in the carpool lane.  However, I cringe at the large number of single-occupant, HOV-traveling hybrid Ford Escapes and Toyota Highlanders I see – both reasonably fuel-efficient vehicles, but nowhere near as economical as many smaller conventional vehicles.  (God help me the first time I see a BMW X6 ActiveHybrid exploiting the rule..)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all-in when it comes to promoting the development, manufacture, deployment, and market penetration of hybrid vehicles.  (In fact, that’s what I do everyday.  For my job.  For which I get paid.)  But perhaps it’s time to revisit some of the policies that were put in place to spur the HEV market, and instead focus on policies to promote public transit.  (Some places, like California, are starting to do just that.)  After all, if he hadn’t been able to drive in the HOV lane alone in the Prius, the Gas H8r may have been enticed to keep his conventional vehicle and make a few carpool buddies.

…Or even ride the bus – leaving him time to think of other ways to advertise how proud he is of himself.

Truckin’

March 8th, 2010 Comments off

There’s a big push to increase the fuel efficiency of our country’s – our WORLD’S – passenger cars.  All of the major automakers are working on more fuel-efficient engines, hybridization, electrification, lightweighting, idle-reduction, and other technology pathways in an effort to meet more stringent CAFE standards in America and compete in the new, greener automotive landscape.

But what about trucks? No, I don’t mean the pickup in your neighbor’s driveway.  I mean the big, 18-wheeled, freight-haulin’, diesel-drinkin’, noise-makin’ semis that move approximately two-thirds of our nation’s freight around, accounting for around 7 TRILLION dollars annually – a substantial portion of our economy.  These trucks get, on average, around 6 miles per gallon.  Horrible, right?  (Well, consider that these trucks, when fully loaded, weigh up to around 80,000 pounds – about the same as 20 passenger cars.  If you assume the cars get 25 mpg each, then the group as a whole gets the equivalent of 1.25 mpg.  In that respect, the semi ain’t so bad…)

…Which brings me to my point.  When talking about fuel efficiency in the trucking industry, FREIGHT efficiency is the proper metric.  (Units of freight-ton-miles-per-gallon are most often talked about.)  And despite the fact that not much effort has been put forth historically into improving the freight efficiency of long-haul trucks, that trend is certainly changing.  The US Department of Energy recently announced awardees under the SuperTruck program – funded in part by the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 (i.e., the Stimulus Bill) – to improve the freight-fuel-efficiency of Class 8 trucks by 50%.

And how is this being accomplished?  Although the impacts of hybridization in long-haul trucks may be modest, electrification can have a LARGE impact in idle-reduction at truck-stops.  (Today, when truck drivers take their mandatory rests at truck-stops, they must let their engines idle to maintain the heating, cooling, and other ancillary functions within their cab.  Having an auxiliary power unit – whether battery or fuel cell – could eliminate this need.)  Aerodynamics plays a HUGE role as well.  Think about it – semi-trucks today are a bit like a brick – an extremely large brick – blasting down the freeway at 70 mph.  Aerodynamic improvements are the low-hanging fruit.  Even simple add-ons that address the gap between the cab and the trailer, the space between the trailer and the road, and the flow-field immediately behind the trailer can have significant impacts.

Beyond this, truck OEMs are working on improvements with more efficient engines through downsizing and downspeeding combined with improvements in the transmission and controls.  The use of waste heat recovery systems is being investigated to capture some of the heat energy that is released through the exhaust system, converting it to electricity to power accessories.  Even driver aids, such as eco-feedback to provide information about the fuel-economy impacts of driving habits, and intelligent route mapping that considers traffic and topography in plotting the most optimum course for shipment, are being considered.  Super-insulated cabs to reduce the heating/cooling load, and super-wide low-rolling-resistance tires are also being developed.  The list goes on and on!

Why is this important? By some estimations, the emissions (of pollutants AND greenhouse gases) from passenger vehicles in the U.S. could flatten out as our vehicles become more efficient, combined with the (slight) potential for mass-transit as our population increases.  (In developing countries however, that might not be the case, unless you’re an eternal optimist and believe that China/India/Brazil will seize the opportunity and grow more smartly than we did.)  Freight, on the other hand, will continue to grow with our population, magnified by the globalization of trade. Basically, if we don’t do something now, the problem could be huge.

Plus, freight companies are businesses.  Businesses make money (or fail).  Rising and uncertain fuel costs wreak havoc with their operating expenses.  More freight-efficient transport translates into more stable profits for freight companies, and more stable prices for the consumer.

Of course, we haven’t even begun to discuss rail-freight yet.  But that’s a topic for another day…

Somebody KERS!

February 14th, 2010 Comments off

Last August, I posed the question, “Who KERS?” in regards to the limited success of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System employed in the 2009 Formula 1 season, and the elimination of the system for 2010.  Well, it turns out that at least one of the systems developed by an F1 team will in fact live on.

As recently described by AutoBlogGreen, Porsche is utilizing the Williams-developed flywheel-based energy storage system in its 911 GT3 R Hybrid.  The 911 GT3 R is the race version of Porsche’s bread-and-butter 911.  The hybrid system leaves the conventional 480-hp flat-6 powering the rear wheels untouched, while adding a pair of 80-hp electric motors to each of the front wheels.

Porsche 911 GT3 R Hybrid

Porsche has always done things a little differently than other automakers, at least with respect to the 911.  Instead of competing in the horsepower wars using 8-, 10- and 12-cylinder engines with massive displacement, they’ve continually developed their horizontally opposed 6-cylinder combined with lightweight (and often exotic) materials to maintain their competitive edge.  Until just over a decade ago, this engine was still air-cooled, in contrast to literally every other automaker’s water-cooled powerplants.  And even now, in a triumph of engineering over physics, Porsche still hangs the motor way out back behind the rear axle.  So it comes as no surprise that they’ve taken the less-traveled path of using a flywheel (instead of a battery) to recovery the energy from braking.

In the simplest terms, the system works by the front-axle motors acting as generators to convert the kinetic energy of the spinning wheels to electrical energy under braking.  The electrical energy is then converted back to kinetic energy at the flywheel (which is essentially another electric motor), as it spins at speeds up to 40,000 rpm.  Under acceleration, the flywheel then acts as a generator, converting the kinetic energy of its spinning mass to electricity, which is routed to the front-wheel motors, where it is converted back to kinetic energy to help power the wheels. (One thing I’ve often wondered in systems like this is – why all the conversions? You want kinetic energy to move the car, and with a flywheel you’ve got a kinetic energy storage system.  Seems like there’d be fewer conversion losses if you could skip the electro-part of the electro-mechanical system, and just connect the flywheel to the drive system by an intelligently activated clutch or viscous coupling.  I’m sure the hybrid system designers out there could give me countless reasons why this wouldn’t work, however.)

And finally, am I a hypocrite because I like this car so much more than the BMW X6 ActiveHybrid, which I criticized here?  Of course not.  BMW has taken a conventional fuel-efficient technology and applied it to a mass-market car solely for performance purposes, with almost no efficiency benefit.  (Plus, the X6 is ugly.)  Porsche, on the other hand, has taken an unproven fuel-efficient technology, and applied it to a limited production race-car as sort of a rolling laboratory to spear-head the development of this new technology, before potentially applying it to its road-going cars.

And although I (like many others) question the feasibility of flywheels as the energy storage solution for mass-market hybrid vehicles, people also once criticized the throwing-a-dart-backwards handling characteristics of the rear-engined 911.  And by most measures, Porsche has been successful with that effort…

Tweeting Our Way Out of Oil Addiction

February 3rd, 2010 Comments off

The year was 1987. Ronald Reagan was president, The Simpsons appeared on TV for the first time, and disposable contact lenses became commercially available.  …That was also the year I became a licensed driver.

When I was a teenager, reaching the age of licensedom was the most anticipated and celebrated event in a young man’s life.  No more having your parents shuttle you to meet your friends – or your date – on a Saturday night.  With that little piece of plastic, you could go wherever you wanted, whenever you wanted … as long as it was before dark.  (You had to wait another year for completely unrestricted driving privileges.)

According to a story last week in the Washington Post, the trend of teenagers applying for a driver’s license as soon as the clock strikes “16 years” may be changing.  According to the story, in 1998 nearly 45% of 16-year-olds got their driver’s license.  In 2008, that percentage had dropped to just over 30%.

Why the apparent decline in interest among teens to jump in their car and drive?  Well, according to the Washington Post story, one contributing factor is social networking.  Back in the day, if we wanted to … social network … with our friends, we had to go see them.  In a pinch, we could talk on the phone.  (Three-way calling was cutting-edge technology!)  But then mom would have to use the phone, so we’d have to to hang up – and break the 3-way-calling-chain that had connected all of our friends.

Since then, we’ve seen cell-phones, broadband, and social networking come into existence and become mainstream.  Teens spend countless hours on Facebook, Twitter, and texting (or otherwise instant-messaging) with their friends.  And when they do this, they’re not driving.  (Well, OK, some of them do text-and-drive.  Which is dangerous. And hard.)  In fact, some teens would actually prefer to be chauffeured around by dear old mom and dad simply so they can continue to OMG and LOL with their BFF!

When a friend of mine recently told me he offered his teenage daughter a choice – a new car, or an iphone … and she chose the iphone, I began thinking, “I wonder what the impact that this phenomenon might have on the amount of fuel we use in our cars is, compared to the impact of, say, hybrid vehicles.”  Let’s assume there are about 10-million teenage drivers in the U.S. – a reasonable guess.  Assuming about 2.5-million of these are 16 years old, then the Washington Post article suggests that about 375,000 of these kids who would’ve gotten their licenses 20 years ago now choose not to.  If each of these kids would have otherwise driven 10,000 miles a year at an average of 25 mpg, that’s about 150-million gallons of gasoline per year that we’ve avoided burning.  Conversely, if Facebook didn’t exist and these kids still got their license and all drove 45 mpg Prius’s (without the faulty accelerator), then we’d only save about 67-million gallons of gasoline each year (compared to the 25 mpg baseline).  Wow.

OK, so my assumptions are arguably faulty.  But, they’re based in reality. And the conclusion? Twitter is more than twice as effective as hybrid technology at reducing fuel use in vehicles.

You heard it here first, folks.  But please – don’t retweet it.

Missing the Point

January 7th, 2010 Comments off

The fuel-economy of our nation’s light-duty vehicle fleet has been roughly stagnant for the past three decades, following a significant (but unsustained) improvement just after the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules were enacted in 1975.  And although our cars’ fuel-economy hasn’t really improved, their efficiency certainly has.  We’re certainly moving around a lot more mass, a lot faster, on the same amount of fuel (per car) we were using 30 years ago. The problem is, all this technology packed into our automobiles has been engineered almost entirely to give us more performance (a 1980 Honda Accord had less than 80 hp; today’s base-model is approaching 200) and move us around in a lot more luxury (with a resulting heft of 3200 lbs for today’s Accord, a gain of a half-ton over the 1980 version) than we ever thought possible, at the complete expense of fuel-economy.  (I know, it’s a result of market demand…  But the best marketers are experts at selling us what we don’t need.)

These days, hybrid technology seems to be the solution to significant increases in fuel-economy, as it becomes ever more difficult to squeeze further efficiency improvements from conventional powertrains.  But BMW has taken a different tack with their ActiveHybrid X6.  Touted as “the world’s most powerful hybrid,” BMW starts with a 4.4-liter, 400 hp V8 internal combustion engine – which, until recent years, would have been enough of a beast to power anything but vehicles of near-supercar status – and integrates it with not one, but TWO electric motors totaling an additional 174 hp.  And sure, the combined 574 horses will be enough to provide incredible acceleration in this nearly 3-ton mammoth, but … what’s the point?

2010 BMW X6 ActiveHybrid

2010 BMW X6 ActiveHybrid

The X6 ActiveHybrid starts at a base price of nearly $90k.  At that price-level, you could almost have a Tesla Roadster, or one of the other upcoming EVs or PHEVs with phenomenal performance and actual environmental benefits.  Granted, the X6 will carry a little more gear than a Roadster.  But, it’s ugly – no matter what powertrain is under the skin.  The X6 looks like the answer to a question that nobody asked.  And while I’m sure it, like all BMWs, offers a driving experience more exhilarating than the majority of other cars on the road, I can’t help but think of it as a caricature of a Honda CRX.

I hope automakers don’t repeat the trend of the past 3 decades, by following BMW’s example of continuing to utilize efficiency-improving technology to increase performance while sacrificing potential fuel-economy benefits. Fortunately, due to the recent and long-overdue increase in CAFE standards, this trend may be thwarted.  At least, as it was in the 1980s, temporarily.