Recently, President Obama’s administration issued a requirement that vehicles sold in the USA after 2025 would need to achieve at least 55 MPG. The usual camps either applauded the forethought, or decried the evil of government regulation. I asked, why do we have to wait until 2025.
Being energy and environmentally minded, when we moved to our cabin years ago, we were concerned with our carbon foot print, with a one-way 63 mile commute (see Rural Commuting). Living in the mountains, with summer thunderstorms and winter snow and year-round gravel roads, we found an all-wheel drive car essential to arriving at work regardless of the weather conditions. After a few seasons of this vehicle security, Linda suggested that we needed a “fair weather car” that would get better than the 25 MPG of our Subaru. Hybrid cars had been around for a few years and the concept intrigued us. After a trip to the local Honda dealer, we drove away with a 2005 Civic hybrid.
The posted MPG ratings came out around 45 MPG. After a little practice, we were routinely running a tank of gas around 700 miles with 55 to 60 MPG, depending on weather conditions. Our trips into town brought us down about 50 MPG, but we do have to drive over North Mountain along the route. Recently, during a routine engine check up, the dealership representative came over with a glum face. He informed us that the computer check had indicated that our battery pack was starting to deteriorate. He went into the better-to-buy-a-new-car-before-the-batteries-cost-you-a-lot-to-replace spiel, ending with the warning that our milage might be lagging too. When I responded that with 170,000 miles we still get 55 MPG routinely, his glum look had more to do with not making a sale.
Granted, we have ideal driving conditions (rolling hills, easy curves, light traffic) for gas milage. One of the pieces of technology on the dash-board which helps with optimizing gas milage is a display which includes a calculation of the average MPG for the Trip A and Trip B. We clear Trip A for each tank of gas, and leave Trip B for each service period. Next to this is a bar with numbers 40, 80, 120, indicating in real time MPG achieved. This data gave us feedback about how our driving styles on different road conditions affect the milage. With practice, we learned how to ease off on the gas pedal to keep that bar in the 60 to 80 MPG ranges as much as possible. As I drive to work and Linda drives home, we also had a couple’s competition to see who could keep the milage highest. Hey, what else do couples do to keep the passion up after 15 years of marriage!?
In reflecting on why vehicles in the USA have such low MPG (e.g. trucks and SUV’s running around 15 MPG, sedans running at under 30 MPG), I wonder how much of the issue is technology of engines, body designs and materials, and how much it is human behavior. Regarding the technology, I remember a friend telling a story of owning a WV diesel light truck in the early 1980’s. He reported that he averaged around 55 MPG at that time. When he returned some years later, wanting to replace this truck, he was told that the company no longer made that style light truck. If a diesel light truck could achieve 55 MPG 30 years ago, and our car built eight years ago can achieve 55 MPG, I doubt that technology is the issue.
Our driving habits certainly are counter to fuel efficiency. We jump at the green light and floor the pedal to enter highways. We drive fast before applying the brakes at slower traffic and stop lights and signs. We believe that six cylinders are better than four, and eight better than six. We believe that every DIY weekend project requires owning a heavy-duty truck with 4WD. We believe that we need enough seats for the soccer team. But, I watch those cars darting out of the intersection, stopped at the next. I see all those powerful cylinders, 4WD, and extra tons of vehicle driven by single drivers to and from work or the store.
The auto manufactures probably will argue that they are just producing the vehicles that the customer wants. I argue that unless consumers become educated on their own, their “wants” are most likely formed by marketing department advertising campaigns. Auto advertisements emphasize speed, power, being the head of the pack, driving faster than sluggards or opening it up on open roads. Sometimes, I cannot tell the difference between someone selling me a car and erectile dysfunction medications. VRRRRRM! I suspect that the development of the gas burning heavy-duty trucks and SUV’s had little do with customer needs to match driving conditions in the 1990’s. It had more to do with auto manufacturing companies selling men an image of what they needed to be bigger, tougher, and more powerful (as well as evading emissions regulations that applied to cars but not trucks). All this then begs my question, why can we not use these marketing techniques to developing consumer’s desire to drive efficiently?
Certainly, most renewable energy systems and more efficient vehicles cost more up-front. But, this is another human factor of saving up-front, only to pay later. Our commute is 126 miles each work day. If we drove our truck, at 18 MPG, we would use about 7 gallons ($25 at $3.50/gallon), our Subaru at 25 MPG 5 gallons (($17), and our Honda at 55 MPG 2.25 gallons ($8). In one trip to work, we saves between $9 to $17. Add to that, our truck and Subaru need refilling every other day, or twice per week, when we drive them. Our Honda, once every week and a half. Dare I suggest that our auto and petroleum industries might also have a human factor of wanting us to be dependent upon them? We are being sold a lifestyle, and asked to pay for it at the same time. Do we need to wait another 13 years to make our choice?