The Road Not Taken

Cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars of tomorrow are aleady here, but economics and politics are keeping them from the showroom

  • Sharon Begley
  • Aug 01, 1991
Was this what Henry Ford fomented a revolution for? So Washington bureaucrats could wrest from taxpaying Americans the right to big-finned, wide-axled chrome beauties? Foisting on citizens of the democracy tin cans with all the zip of golf carts? Not if the Big Three automakers had anything to say about it: In testimony against the proposed Senate bill mandating fuel efficiency, Ford predicted the measure would require "either all sub-Pinto-sized vehicles or some mix of vehicles ranging from a sub-sub-sub compact to perhaps a Maverick." Chrysler warned the bill "would outlaw . . . most full-sized sedans and station wagons." General Motors spun an equally bleak scenario.

The year was 1974, and the Big Three were responding to what would become the nation's first fuel efficiency standards for cars, established in 1975. Though the automakers didn't succeed then in halting the bill, their tune hasn't changed, and over the years it has helped curb further efforts at government control. "The automobile companies are trotting out the same scare tactics" against current pending legislation (the Motor Vehicle Fuel Efficiency Act) that they did 17 years ago, says National Wildlife Federation President Jay D. Hair. Efficient cars, they maintain, must be small and dangerous.

That notion is still the most widespread fallacy clouding the outlook for vehicles that are cleaner and less gasoholic. But it is hardly the only misinformation. Conventional wisdom also holds that cars of tomorrow exist only in blueprints. In fact, they already exist, and range from GM's sporty electric Impact to hundreds of United Parcel Service vans running on compressed natural gas to Volvo's prototype 100-miles-per-gallon (mpg) sedan. So why do these sleek marvels of efficiency seldom make it to the showroom?

That question assumed added importance in the wake of the war against Iraq. Operation Desert Storm brought into stark relief just how much Americans will pay in lives and dollars to defend access to foreign oil. Most of that oil goes not to warm homes or power industry, but to move us around in 3,000-pound steel boxes. Motor vehicles account for more than half of the nation's oil consumption, placing them "at the root of U.S. oil dependence," as Christopher Flavin of Worldwatch Institute puts it.

National security is only the latest spur to the development of cars that use less or no gasoline. Thanks largely to cars and trucks, more than half of all Americans live in areas that do not meet clean air standards. "Motor vehicles generate more air pollution than any other single human activity," says Deborah Bleviss of the Washington-based International Institute for Energy Conservation. Vehicles also account for almost one-quarter of our emissions of carbon dioxide, the gas that threatens to warm the globe through a disastrous greenhouse effect. Without a revolution in how we drive, the pollution will worse, for the car population is growing even faster than the human one.

To be sure, there has been some progress toward reducing cars' thirst for refined crude. Since 1976, fuel efficiency of new cars has doubled, now saving the country 2.5 million barrels of gasoline (and $110 million) every day, calculates Marc Ledbetter of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Moreover, estimates Ledbetter, "while a 40-mpg car would cost $600 more, it would save $2,000 over its typical life span." But fuel economy in new cars fell 4 percent between 1988 and 1990, as low gasoline prices lured buyers to bigger, more powerful gas guzzlers and the government did not tighten fuel-efficiency standards.

The reasons have nothing to do with technology—and everything to do with the marketplace. The U.S. Department of Transportation concluded in 1980 that technology existing then could produce a safe car that got 43 mpg. But, automakers point out, car buyers are not clamoring for 65-mpg models. Such arguments infuriate conservationists, who blame automakers, not consumers, for resisting "every improvement in auto efficiency, safety and emissions," says Glenn Sugameli, a National Wildlife Federation attorney, "while spending a billion dollars a year to create, not respond to, consumer desires for overpowered muscle cars." Still, consumers can't help but notice that because gas is so cheap, a 35-mpg car saves an underwhelming $50 or so per year in fuel costs over a car that gets 30 mpg.

With little financial inducement to care about mileage, consumers and producers have shifted attention toward "high performance engines with fast acceleration capabilities," says Bleviss. Traditionally, they have cared more about purchase price, styling, handling and zippiness—all qualities that Americans have tended to regard as their constitutional rights.

Those attitudes may be changing. A recent survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 83 percent of the Americans polled favored an increase in federal automobile fuel-efficiency standards. However, automakers are reluctant to push new fuel-efficient technologies—and they staunchly oppose government efforts to mandate high mpg cars. Such models, they claim, just sit on the showroom floor.

Yet automakers from Ford to Subaru have prototypes that get 60 to 100 mpg—though not always in cars destined for consumers. "It would be a mistake to think that just because a prototype is built it can be mass produced," says auto analyst Christopher Cedergren of J.D. Powers and Associates. "It's all part of the research and development game."

Among some of the latest gas-saving tricks (fuel savings estimates are based on research by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy):

Doubling the number of valves per cylinder from the standard two, as do the Buick Regal, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Since these engines produce more horsepower than two-valve versions, fewer cylinders produce the same amount of power. Fuel savings: 10 percent. 
Using a continuously variable transmission, as on the Subaru lusty, which better matches engine speed to gear ratio. Estimated fuel savings: 4.7 percent. 
Reducing weight by about 10 percent (300 pounds), by substituting stronger light aluminum and fiber-reinforced plastics for heavy steel. Savings: 6.6 percent. 
Replacing the push-rod engine with an overhead-cam engine that yields more power for less fuel. Savings: 6 percent. 
Reducing drag with aerodynamic design. Savings: about 4.6 percent. 
Turning off the engine when the car's not moving, as on the Volkswagen EcoGolf diesel prototype. It gets 59 mpg in city driving rather than the 34 mpg for the regular Golf diesel; VW could begin limited commercial production next year. 
Installing intake valve control, which also cuts emissions. Honda and Nissan offer rudimentary systems; others are under development. Fuel savings: 6 percent.
These are among the strategies, according to Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nevada), that justify raising the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards first introduced in 1975. A bipartisan bill Bryan introduced this year with Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Washington) would raise the standard for new cars to about 40 mpg by model year 2001 from the current 27.5. The payoff: our oil thirst would be reduced by 2.5 million barrels a day by 2005. "Current technologies can improve the gas mileage of the entire fleet," says NWF's Sugameli, "so Americans can choose from a full range of cars and light trucks that save money on gasoline, and reduce pollution."

The other option for government action is to raise fuel prices, of course—and in fact the federal tax on gasoline rose a nickel in 1990. But making people really care about fuel economy would require pricing similar to that of Europeans, with taxes high enough to push the price of a gallon of gasoline to $5 in some countries. As long as the market in this country does little to promote better fuel economy, "the only means left to encourage [that] is through government policymaking," says Bleviss.

Take the example of the Volvo LCP 2000. This prototype is more crashworthy than required by law, accelerates from 0 to 60 in 11 seconds and could be priced competitively. It gets 81 mpg on the highway and 63 mpg in the city. "It feels like a Honda Civic," says Lee Schipper of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. "But it was allowed to die because fuel prices fell and Volvo felt that it wouldn't pay off. Most of the world today wants to buy cars that are bigger and more powerful."

That ambition is a strong indication of how far away this country is from the ultimate solution—breaking our love affair with the private car. Realistically, Americans aren't about to give up their vehicles; in 1988, 51 million more cars drove 450 billion more miles than in 1970. Even with tougher CAFE standards or incentives like rebates for fuel efficiency, a long-term solution may lie in vehicles that dispense with refined crude altogether. Among the alternatives to gasoline:

Compressed natural gas (CNG). The more than 500,000 CNG vehicles on the roads today (30,000 in the United States) show that CNG is a proven technology, one that reduces tailpipe emissions significantly and greenhouse gases somewhat. Depending on driving conditions, CNG vehicles spew 50 to 90 percent less carbon monoxide, 10 percent less carbon dioxide and 40 to 90 percent fewer reactive hydrocarbons (a principal cause of smog and ozone) than line-powered vans, though emissions of nitrogen oxides are generally higher. Last February, GM announced a $40 million program with the Gas Research Institute to offer regular production CNG trucks by the mid-1990s.

Mass-produced CNG vehicles are expected to cost about $1,000 more than standard ones—mostly for the heavy, pressurized tanks needed to hold the CNG—but will save about $450 annually on lower fuel and maintenance costs. For about $2,500 to $3,500, a gasoline vehicle can be converted to run on CNG or to switch between gasoline and CNG with the flick of a dashboard switch. One drawback of to day's CNG vehicles is that they have to be refueled every 200 miles or so—rather than 400 or so for gasoline.

Methanol, or wood alcohol. Thousands of methanol vehicles are on the road. "It's the alternative technology that's the furthest along and the most feasible," says Chrysler engineer D.C. Van Raaphorst. An alcohol fuel, methanol can be synthesized from wood, sugar, grains—anything containing carbon. Natural gas is the cheapest feedstock, and could produce fuel that is competitive with pre-Desert Shield gasoline prices.

Methanol can also be synthesized from coal; one idea for avoiding the emission of carbon dioxide from this process is to add hydrogen, turning CO, into yet more methanol. If the abundant high-sulfur coal in the United States were converted into methanol, some observers maintain, it could conceivably replace all of our Persian Gulf oil imports and more—though environmentalists point out that methanol produced from coal has a considerably higher impact on global warming than gasoline. What's more, new markets for high-sulfur coal encourage environmentally disastrous strip mining. And that, says Dave Alberswerth, National Wildlife Federation Director of Public Lands and Energy, who has long fought excessive strip mining, is "an awful idea."

Methanol's biggest advantage is that, as a liquid fuel, it does not require a major change in the distribution system or in car engines. Since it has a higher octane than gasoline (about 105), a methanol car is a muscle car—but a relatively clean one: It spews as little as 10 percent of the hydrocarbons that gasoline does. (Carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions are about the same as from gasoline.)

Most promising, methanol vehicles may not require carburetors, radiators or a cooling fan, argue Charles Gray and Jeffrey Alson of the Environmental Protection Agency, and could get by with a simplified fuel-injection system. Jettisoning these bulky components would allow for a sleeker, lighter car producing 60 to 80 percent less carbon dioxide than vehicles that burn gasoline, argue the two scientists in a report.

Methanol has drawbacks. It packs half the energy of gasoline, so unless drivers settle for reduced range, their cars will require a larger tank. Also, it is highly toxic, so precautions would be required at filling stations. Since it is so corrosive, it would require a fuel tank made of stainless steel or other resistant material, adding $300 to $500 to the sticker price. And it burns invisibly, which could lead to safety problems—though that could be remedied with a dye to color the flame.

By next year, GM expects to deliver to the California Energy Commission, for use in its fleet, 2,000 Corsicas and Luminas that can run on either methanol or gasoline. Ford hopes to mass produce a "flex-fuel" Taurus sedan by 1993. Volkswagen will produce about 100 flex-fuel Jettas this year and another 200 the following year.

Electric. The California Air Resources Board has mandated that, by 1998, 2 percent of the approximately 2 million new vehicles sold in the state be electric; by 2003, the figure must be 10 percent. That requirement alone assures a market: Clean Air Transport will offer 30,000 electric vehicles in the state by 1995.

Already, buyers can purchase a custom-made electric car for little more than a standard gasoline car off the corner lot. Solar Electric of Rohnert Park, California, offers vehicles ranging from three-wheel electric mopeds ($995, speed up to 15 miles an hour) to converted Fiat X-19s ($7,000, 60 mph). Southern California Edison, working with Swedish and British firms, expects 10,000 electric four-passenger cars to hit the roads in California by 1995. General Motors has developed the sporty Impact, which travels 120 miles on a single charge.

One drawback is battery technology. "Current lead-acid batteries are more than adequate for our first generation of electric cars," says GM president Lloyd Reuss. "But because lead-acid batteries are heavy and short-lived, we'll need to develop advanced energy systems."

Better batteries are in the works. Chrysler's TEVan, for example, with a nickel-iron battery, is scheduled for production in the mid 1990s: It will get 120 miles on a charge and reach 65 miles an hour. Ford and BMW are working on models powered with sodium-sulfur batteries. Tokyo Electric Power Co. is developing a car powered by nickel-cadmium batteries. Detroit's Big Three pledged $35 million to a consortium for developing better batteries.

Even if batteries are improved, their use won't eliminate the burning of fossil fuels, as much of our electricity comes from coal. Though they would ease urban pollution, "nobody should kid themselves that this is a 'clean' technology," says National Wildlife Federation's Alberswerth. "We will simply be substituting stack gas emissions from coal-fired power plants for tailpipe emissions from cars."

Hydrogen. This technology is the farthest from commercialization, but, if produced by solar energy from water, would make driving almost as benign as bicycling. Among the obstacles: hydrogen must be stored either at -423 degrees Fahrenheit to keep it liquid, or in metal hydride tanks in which the gas is stored in metal powders.

Clearly, the cars of the future can be ready to roll as soon as buyers want them. The challenge for lawmakers is to use the carrots and sticks of regulations and rebates, policy and penalty, to get them moving off the assembly line. More funding would help too. In 1990, the U.S. government spent a total of $194 million on all energy-efficiency research. That came to less than the bill for one day of Desert Storm.

Sharon Begley takes public transportation to her job as Newsweek's science writer. 

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