Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Modest Proposal

As I've pointed out before, in obvious understatement, if you want to save gas buy a small car. The problem is, after three decades of weight increasing safety mandates and consequent increases in power requirements, the choices available in the U.S. market are not nearly as "small" as they used to be. The weight increases of similarly sized vehicles from 1975 to 2008 are in the range of 500 on the lean side to well over a thousand pounds on the porky side. Equally obvious is that every one of those pounds uses additional fuel to accelerate it up to speed.

It's certainly true that cars are safer, and wildly cleaner, than they were 30 years ago but weight increases of 25 to over 50 percent have done nothing salutary for efficiency. It would even worse without advanced designs with their extensive electronic engine control systems but if engines did not have to drag along an extra half-ton then urban mileage figures would jump upward smartly.

Being an official old-fart I fondly remember the 1975 VW Scirocco I owned. It was about the size of a current Civic but weighed only 1900lbs as opposed to a 2008 Civic's 2600lbs. Even though it had a relatively primitive carbureted 1600cc engine and a four speed non-overdrive transmission it routinely got better than 30mpg. If I had ever attempted to hypermile it I no doubt would have seen the far side of 40mpg. That 700lb. difference is mainly why the Civic only does a little better on mileage than the Scirocco despite the fact it is significantly more aerodynamic than the relatively boxy Scirocco and benefits from over 30 years of engine design advances.

This pandemic porkiness can be observed even in such extreme cases as the Smart car which depite its tiny size weighs only 200lbs less than the 1975 Scirocco. Being built by Daimler-Benz I have no doubt that it meets or exceeds all relevant vehicle crash standards but its weight illustrates the phenomenon that the smaller the vehicle the stouter the central "cage" of the body must be until, in the case of the Smart Car, the central cage must be far heavier in proportion to its size than say a Ford Crown Victoria. This poundage is what is mostly responsible for the relatively unimpressive mileage of the vehicle which looks like it would just have to get 50mpg but doesn't come anywhere close to that in the real world. This tendency can be resisted to some degree with lightweight aluminum alloys or composite materials but costs escalate rapidly out of sight with this approach. Few would be much interested in a 1200lb Smart car that cost $40,000 even if it did get 50mpg or even higher.

It's plain that cars are safer than they used to be but it's equally plain that the roads were not littered with the maimed bodies of hapless Scirocco drivers in the mid 70s. Late model cars may be much "safer" than the Scirocco but the Scirocco was significantly safer than cars of the 50s and 60s and wildly safer than cars of the 30s and 40s. In the 70s vehicles were beginning to approach the limits of safety design in a distinctly asymptotic fashion. More plainly put it means that more and more engineering effort, and consequent increases in weight, has been expended in pursuit of ever smaller safety advantages.

Each new test of a vehicle that exceeds federal safety standards is heralded and others that may be 99.9% as "good" are all but labled as deathtraps. One aspect of this trend is that cars are much more disposable than before. Surviving a 35mph barrier crash may leave the occupants unharmed but the vehicle is almost certain to be irreparable and must perforce be pitched on the junk heap. Decades ago vehicles were of such design that allowed repair and reconstruction even in fairly intense crash scenarios. It is presumed by the safety establishment that anyone would be nuts to argue that this tradeoff is a bad thing but very few are aware how much these "advances" have cost them not only at the pump but at the body shop and the insurance office as well.

Militant safety advocates have little truck with such plebian irrelevancies as cost/benefit analyses. Presumably they would fervently applaud a Civic that could crash into Hoover Dam at 100mph with the occupants not subjected to even a hangnail but we poor slobs who would be expected to operate that vehicle would not be thrilled that it would cost 75 grand, weigh 4 tons, be shaped like a beachball, and get about 10 miles per gallon of fuel.

The weight increases in vehicles have demanded ever more powerful engines to propel them resulting in a horsepower race that thankfully seems to be coming to an end. Until the Smart Car appeared on these shores there has not been a single vehicle sold in this country for a couple of decades that had less than a 100 horsepower engine. The aforementioned Scirocco had an engine rated at only 70HP, had a top speed of over 100mph and could get over 30mpg. Hardly surprising since even with its relatively primitive engine design it had 700lbs. less than a Civic to drag around. It also made for a very sporty vehicle that was hailed at the time as one of the best handling fun-to-drive little coupes to ever roll down the old pike. The current iteration of the Scirocco has 200 horspower and weighs no less than a half a ton more. This is progress?

The current mid-size class sales leader, the Honda Accord, is available with a 260HP engine, and weighs an incredible 1300 pounds more than when it was introduced in the late 70s. Even the four cylinder base powerplant has nearly 200HP and the whole vehicle is only a couple of hundred pounds lighter than the big boy. That it gets decent mileage at all is a testament to the engineering genius of Honda but however sharp those boys are they cannot repeal the laws of physics.

This horsepower race in modern vehicles was abetted largely, and perhaps illogically to some, by emissions reducing electronic engine controls and until fuel prices spiked showed little sign of abating. If that 260HP Accord were not speed governed it would likely have a top end of near 150mph. That is a horsepower to weight ratio that would have done a Ferrari of the 1960s quite proud. This race has resulted in sports cars and retro styled muscle-cars that have acceleration capabilities that make their big bad 60s namesakes look positively pathetic by comparison. Current top-rank supercars such as Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and even the far less dear Corvette all have stupendous power levels, many exceeding 600HP, top speeds approaching or above 200mph, and 0-60 times that make a 1968 Hemi-Challenger look like a garbage truck with a flat tire. An Accord is faster than that Hemi-Challenger for pete's sake. Presumably if you can afford a supercar you won't be bothered by high fuel prices but that Accord owner would welcome 10 more mpg with open arms.

If fuel prices had remained at the low levels of the nineties I do not doubt that in due course that we would have seen the advent of a 400 horsepower Accord and the 1000HP sports car would be common. Except in the world of the supercar this horsepower race is presumably over in light of fuel prices but the long product development cycles of modern automobile manufacturing will not result in smaller thriftier engines for a while yet. Power levels can only drop so far for a given vehicle weight before operationally adequate performance suffers and the heavy vehicles of today will be hamstrung by much smaller powerplants. The decision of manufacturers to begin importing smaller vehicles already in production elsewhere will not have anything like immediate results. A vehicle not specifically built to American safety and crash standards will require many millions of dollars and several years to be brought into "compliance" with the vast welter of U.S. federal regulations. Plus if it isn't built in the U.S. its pricing will suffer from disadvantageous exchange rates

A not inconsequential driver of increased weight is the huge array of electronic and convenience gizmos--multiple airbags, high-power stereos, GPS navigation systems, DVD players, rear mounted cameras, that are rampant in new cars not to mention much greater (heavier) amounts of sound deadening materials. Even the smallest meanest economy car has an array of weight adding features designed to convince buyers they are getting a small luxury vehicle instead of an econobox. Virtually all major manufacturers view any reversal of this trend as unilateral disarmament in the advertising wars.

It's time to stop the horsepower and weight race. Modern vehicles are almost universally as safe now as they will ever need to be. Finding ways to squelch the safety lobby's incessant demands need to be found so that vehicle weights will not continue their upward spiral. And don't regale me with tales of the crunchy greenie goodness of hybrids. The Prius, which is not a whit larger than a Civic, weighs 3000lbs which cannot but adversely affect its crashworthiness and its handling/braking performance. Larger hybrids suffer from even more weight gain to the point where the hybrid Chevy Tahoe weighs well north of 3 tons. Again what part of this sounds like progress?

I propose a freeze on all increases in federally mandated crashworthiness and indeed a scaling back of mandates on vehicles weighing 2500 lbs. or less. It is conceivable, but quite unlikely, that this might result in a few extra deaths per 100 million miles driven, the relevant metric, but the current rate is at historic lows and it is unlikely that reducing, for instance, the barrier crash requirements from 30 to 25mph will make any notable difference.

My aforementioned 1975 Scirroco undoubtedly would not come close to passing current crashworthiness standards but again the country was not heaped with corpses extracted from mangled V-dubs in the late 70s. It has been often stated that highway deaths per 100 million miles decreased every year after extensive governmental safety mandates went into affect. This is correct but it is equally correct that automobile deaths per mile driven have decreased, and by similar amounts, every year that records have been kept. This situation has changed in the last few years with deaths reaching a seemingly intractable plateau, to the distress of activist safety advocates, but this is merely a reflection of the fact that we have essentially reached the limits of what technology can accomplish without truly spectacular cost increases.

I have expounded previously on the concept of the serial hybrid configuration but there needs to be more consideration of vehicle designs that the average wage earner can not only afford but might be willing to buy as a second vehicle for commuting duties. I am convinced that there is a need for this and the seemingly relentless hybridization of the fleet makes the affordability question much worse not better. The bottom end of the hybrid market is around $25,000 which means that the "working class", so allegedly beloved by progressive panjandrums, is shut out of the "green" vehicle market. Using a goodly number of fresh sheets of paper and a different marketing attitude will service this market nicely and result in not only much lower fuel usage but also in lowered CO2 emissions.

Tiny city vehicles like the Smart Car are attractive possibilities but in the mix of driving experienced by the average person their highway performance leaves a lot to be desired. So what you say? Well few low to middle income wage earners, who may be able to afford only a single vehicle, are willing to buy a car with such a limited all-around utility. If you need, on short notice, to go see your sick brother in Des Moines and you live in Kansas City then it's likely you're going to leave the Smart Car in the garage and take something with some decent highway legs even if it means a somewhat more expensive trip.

Now if you live in Connecticut and your brother is in San Diego then you'll likely opt for a plane ride instead but think back in your life and driving career when having the option of driving a couple of hundred miles was a lot more attractive proposition than entering the time consuming realm of airline transport. From the time you leave your house in KC you'll be in Des Moines in a few leisurely hours. It's easily conceivable that the plane ride could take twice as long door to door and cost twice as much. Trips inside five hundred miles or so are more attractive now than before, even considering high fuel costs when the protracted hassles of negotiating airports are taken into consideration.

Environmentalists natter on about how deficient we are in cross-country mass transit and claim that the only real "solution" to this is a wildly increased level of rail transport. Current rail infrastructure simply cannot service a greatly increased level of passenger traffic which means new infrastructure would have to be built to accomodate it. This would cost many hundreds of billions of dollars, at a minimum, and not even in the most wildy optimistic scenarios would this address the needs of the person who needs to get to say Topeka from St. Joseph, Houston from Texarkana, San Francisco from Vegas, Boston from Bangor, etc. etc, etc.

There already exists a perfectly usable system of artery highways that, although expensive to build and not cheap to maintain, are at least already largely paid for. This issue, as are so many others, is not a zero sum game but it sure seems to me that increasing the fleet's efficiency is far more likely to pay major dividends than blanketing the country in new rail lines without requiring several trillion dollars in new infrastructure. Pie-in-the-sky schemes such as Maglev trains will remain that way due primarily to the fact that they cost well over a thousand dollars per inch of installed structure. There is exactly one operational commercial Maglev train in the world, in China, and it is an underutilized asset that generates only the tiniest fraction of its stupendous operating and construction costs. It cost two billion dollars to build, with far cheaper Chinese labor, and is all of eighteen miles long which works out to 110 million dollars per mile, 21,000 thousand dollars per foot and over 1700 dollars per inch. The distance from New York to L.A. is 135 times as long. You do the math if you have the nerve.

No? Okay I will. It works out to over a quarter of a trillion dollars and to think that it could be built here for anywhere near that is ludicrous. Likely twice that or more. And that's only one major cross country route. To service the country in anything like a comprehensive manner would require an investment that would exceed the cost of the interstate highway system by a couple of orders of magnitude. This scenario doesn't even merit the status of a pipe dream.

Sorry for the digression but that costly chimera needed to be subjected to the rational analysis it rarely gets. In fact my digressions have run this post to an excessive length so I will continue it above with a discussion of what kind of vehicle I think would materially contribute to our lowering of fuel usage without being out of the financial reach by the likes of thee and me. See the above post for a discussion of a vehicle concept that can address the needs of the average person in this nervous age.


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