The 50 MPG Car

I have been meaning to blog about a story I read on Newsweek for a while now. The subhead on the story says Why automakers don’t sell a car that gets 50mpg.

It is an excellent question and one that really needs more attention. This is not just an environmental issue, it is economic. As it becomes more expensive to operate a motor vehicle we will see it begin to impact the economy at large in all sorts of places.

There is no doubt in my mind that we have the ability to produce these vehicles. It really has been a question of desire. Gas is still cheap enough that most people do not have to stop and consider whether it makes financial sense to take a drive for pleasure, go to the store etc. But the day is coming where it is going to be harder and until we see that day I question whether we’ll have a strong enough push from consumers to see change.

Let’s take a look at some excerpts from this story.

“Wouldn’t it be great if you could drive a car that gets 50 miles per gallon? Well, you can. Just hop on a plane and fly to Europe, where all new cars average 43mpg, or Japan, where the average hits 50mpg. Here in the United States, we’re stuck at 25mpg in our considerably larger and more powerful cars, trucks and SUVs. So why can’t we do better? Here’s the dirty little secret: we can. “If you want better fuel economy, it’s just a question of when auto companies want to do it and when consumers decide they want to buy it,” says Don Hillebrand, a former Chrysler engineer who is now director of transportation research for Argonne National Labs. “Auto companies can deliver it within a year.”

A 50mpg car would certainly put a tiger in the tank of the moribund U.S. auto industry. But don’t get your checkbook out quite yet. The reality is that you won’t see a car on a showroom floor in America with 50mpg on the window sticker for at least three years and maybe longer. Sure, all auto companies are focusing on jacking up fuel economy, especially since Congress just mandated that all new autos sold by 2020 must average 35mpg. The new mileage mantra also is motivated by the fact that car sales are weak, partially because of panic at the pump. But putting out a 50mpg car any time soon is daunting even to the maker of America’s mileage champ, the 48mpg Toyota Prius. “We’re close enough to spit at that now,” says Bill Reinert, Toyota‘s national manager of advanced technologies. “It’s not an incredible stretch, but it’s an incredible stretch to do it on a mass-market basis.”

It might seem ludicrous to you that there isn’t a mass market right here and now for a 50mpg car. For crying out loud, we’ve entered the age of the $128 fill-up. (The cost of topping off a Chevy Suburban). But here’s the problem: to get to 50mpg in the near future, consumers would have to trade off at least one of three very important things—cost, drive quality or safety. That’s because the quickest way to make a car more fuel-efficient is to make it smaller, lighter and equip it with some high-tech (a.k.a. costly) propulsion system like a plug-in gas-electric system.”


Still, all the major automakers are putting their cars on a crash diet. Ford wants to drop 250 to 750 pounds in all its models by 2012. Toyota and Nissan want to cut the fat by 10 to 15 percent. But this slim-fast campaign is running into the drive for more safety features in automobiles. Back in the 1980s, the Honda CRX-HF and the Geo Metro each got more than 50mpg, but they didn’t have airbags or steel beams in their doors to protect occupants in a crash. These days, cars are equipped with six air bags, steel safety cages and electronic stability control to prevent spinouts. That makes cars much safer—but a lot fatter. “We are working in two directions,” says Toyota’s Reinert. “One is to make cars as safe as possible, and that generally makes them heavier. And the other is to make cars as fuel efficient as possible.”

Downsizing also has its drawbacks. For starters, U.S. highway statistics show the smallest cars have death rates 2.5 times higher than the biggest. What’s more, wimpy engines often (under) power small cars and that’s a drawback many Americans won’t abide. I recently drove the diminutive Smart car for a week. While it’s certainly cute, its puny 70-horsepower engine and slow-shifting transmissions made me feel like Fred Flintstone could outrun me. That might be enough power for twisty Old World roads, but here in America, we have a need for speed. “Going zero to 60 in 15 seconds doesn’t fit the average American consumers idea of mobility today,” says Reinert. “That’s too doggy.”

I have to admit that I hate the really small cars. I don’t feel safe in them. I also hate not having a car with any guts. It is nerve wracking and dangerous to try and get on the freeway in a vehicle that takes forever to get to speed.

Still, I am certain that there is no reason why we cannot overcome these issues. We have the ability, all we need is the desire.

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