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As the Obama administration announces ambitious new fuel economy standards for America’s automakers, it’s worth reflecting on how advanced our cars have become. Today’s cars are more powerful, more efficient, and safer than ever, in large part because regulations have mandated it.
So it’s hard to imagine a future where cars average 54 mpg. If, after all these years, the best we can manage is an average of 27 mpg, how could we possibly double that in 15 years? Will technology move that quickly?
This morning, I came across an article from a 1979 issue of Mother Earth News about a hobbyist who’d converted his Opel CT into a hybrid, using an electric motor with a lawnmower engine to charge the batteries as backup – a similar setup to the Chevy Volt. The car, the owner claimed, topped out at 90 mph, had virtually unlimited range, and could get 75 mpg.
Granted, a vintage Opel is by no means safe, by modern standards (or even by 1970s standards). The point is that technology isn’t necessarily the barrier to higher mileage.
John German, a former automotive engineer, recently wrote a column for The Hill accusing automakers of “crying wolf” over stricter economy standards — noting a history of dire predictions over federal regulations — and explains how it’s market forces and institutional culture that hold back innovation:
If you hear automakers grumble that they cannot meet these fuel efficiency standards, don’t believe them — they are much better at innovation than they’re letting on. It is important to understand how risk adverse automotive engineers have to be. Just misplacing the accelerator pedal cost Toyota billions of dollars. Quality constraints are so severe that engineers are mired in a very conservative mindset that causes them to always underestimate what they can accomplish. Auto manufacturers not only have a plethora of new alternative fuel technologies to explore and develop, they also have plenty of on-the-shelf technologies they are in the process of deploying to make cars more fuel-efficient.
So a higher mileage standard doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll all be forced to drive around in kludged-together Opels. The automakers might have a few tricks up their sleeves that we’re not aware of.