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The 40 mpg Toyota Estima. Could driving a Japanese van save American jobs?

A new report by the Environmental Law and Policy Center says raising fuel economy standards could create thousands of jobs in Illinois.

It goes like this: A higher average MPG means more money spent locally instead of on gasoline, and more money spent locally boosts the economy, creating jobs.

The ELPC did an analysis estimating a fleet average of 30 mpg would save Illinois drivers more than $6 billion (assuming $5 per gallon gas), and relying on University of Illinois economic modeling, translating those savings into 72,000 net jobs in the state.

There are all sorts of caveats, of course. The authors acknowledge that it will take years for the impact of an increased federal mandate to be seen locally. But the point is that every dollar we spend pumping imported oil into our inefficient cars is a dollar that is exported from the local economy.

Does that mean we’ll all be driving around in subcompacts? Not necessarily. Did you know that Toyota has been making a 7-passenger, all-wheel-drive hybrid minivan that gets 40 mpg? For a decade? It’s true – you just can’t buy the thing in the United States.

Then there are developments like the wave disk engine – researchers at Michigan State are working on a prototype – which burns fuel more efficiently and eliminates the need for a cooling system or transmission. Professor Norbert Mueller at MSU estimates the engine, which is intended to run a generator in a hybrid application, a la the Chevy Volt, would be three to four times more efficient than current hybrids and cut emissions by up to 90 percent. Oh, and it would also be cheaper and lighter to build:

Mueller wants a prototype on the road in three years. Can you imagine? An American-built car that gets in excess of 100 mpg, that can run on a variety of fuels and has virtually no maintenance costs?

That 30 mpg doesn’t seem quite so pie-in-the-sky now, does it?

Ken Paulman

Ken is the director of the Energy News Network at Fresh Energy and is a founding editor of both Midwest Energy News and Southeast Energy News. Prior to joining Fresh Energy, he was the managing editor for online news at Minnesota Public Radio. He started his journalism career in 2002 as a copy editor for the Duluth News Tribune before spending five years at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, where he worked as a copy editor, online producer, features editor and night city editor. A Nebraska native, Ken has a bachelor's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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