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The Big Three U.S. automakers appeared before Congress, hat-in-hand, all this past week begging for an additional $25 Billion dollars to rescue our ailing auto industry. The devastating Bush economy, creating massive unemployment (542,000 jobs lost in the four weeks since October 15th, the worst one-month decline since January, 1983), coupled with Dealerships clogged full of gas-guzzling SUV’s nobody wants, has the Big Three automakers hemorrhaging cash at an unsustainable rate: Chrysler: over $5b a month, Ford: $2.6b a month, and GM losing a paltry $2b a month).

One need only turn on the TV to see why. The most fuel efficient American (note, I didn’t say “American MADE“) econo-boxes being sold by the Big Three average gas mileage in the low 30’s on the highway. Chevy is bursting with pride over its retooled Chevy Cobalt, now promising a whopping 37mpg highway… yet a mere 25mpg city. The gas mileage leaders in the U.S. are (natch) the Japanese-made hybrid sub-compacts, the Toyota Prius (48city/45hwy) and Honda Civic Hybrid (40city/45hwy). I don’t know about you, but I find 40mpg from a hybrid hugely disappointing. Sorry, I’m not impressed. When the most fuel efficient car sold in the U.S. only gets slightly better highway mileage than a V8 Chevy Corvette, I don’t think anyone should be patting themselves on the back. In the 21st Century, I’m seriously underwhelmed by 40mpg (hell, weren’t we suppose to have *flying* cars by now?)

(UPDATE: Conservatives are Blaming CAFE Standards For Auto Industry’s Troubles. – Another perfect example of just how clueless Conservatives are, blaming (nearly non-existent) CAFE standards for the current crisis in the auto industry. It is precisely the LACK of higher mileage standards and government mandates that led to the Big Three over-producing millions of gas-guzzling SUV’s that no one wants. The Bush Administration believed removing mandates/regulations from the auto industry would be good for business. Sound familiar?)

Cars sold in the U.S. didn’t always get such lousy gas mileage. Back in 1978, when Russia embargoed the sale of oil to the U.S. (in retaliation of our Grain Embargo due to their support of Iran as it held Americans hostage), the price of gasoline nearly doubled and Americans started looking for more fuel efficient cars. Popularity of vehicles like the 1979 Toyota Corolla (31city/40hwy), 1978 Honda Civic (38city/46hwy) and 1977 Volkswagen Rabbit Diesel (40city/50hwy) soared.

So why is it that thirty years later, cars get worse mileage today than they did in 1979? If you answered “emission requirements”, you’d only be partly right, as most of the highest mileage vehicles were also smoke-belching diesels (one must ask if a tiny 1.4L 3cyl diesel engine getting over 40mpg is really any more polluting than a 20mpg Ford Fusion or 22mpg Chevy Malibu?) But 21st Century diesel technology is cleaner today than many gasoline powered vehicles currently on the road.

Back in the late 1990’s, I was already becoming more and more concerned over the growing popularity of 18mpg gas-guzzling SUV’s. No one seemed as worried about gas mileage as they were over crossing the Rubicon or climbing Everest in a sub-compact.

$4/gal gas here in the U.S. last July finally helped Americans realize 12, 18, 22 mpg is no longer acceptable. Gas prices have always been dramatically higher in Europe and Asia than here in the U.S.. In 2000, when gasoline here was $1.45/gal, I went on vacation to Singapore where gasoline was selling for $4.12 a liter (that’s $15.59/gal). In the two weeks I was there, I saw ONE American made car… a Ford Escort that had to be at least three years old. No one wants an American gas guzzler when you’re paying $15 bucks a gallon… and American automakers wonder why we can’t sell more cars overseas (though to be fair, American car sales in China are one of the few bright spots for America’s Big Three).

If you haven’t seen it yet, a 2006 documentary entitled “Who Killed the Electric Car” (watch the full movie online here) recounts how GM once built The EV1, THE most advanced production electric car in the world.

GM’s EV1 Electric Car
The EV1

Demand for the car was great… unless you asked GM, who claimed no one wanted it. Despite people picketing outside the GM impound lot begging to buy the vehicles outright, GM crushed every last one of them… sans a single vehicle given to a museum with the engine stripped out. Battery technology at the time just hadn’t caught up to what most people demanded in a production vehicle.

So here we are, a nearly bankrupt American auto industry that takes pride in turning out cars that average less than 30 miles per gallon. Recent concern over Global Warming, coupled with high gas prices, helped push GM into accelerating development of its “Volt” plug-in electric hybrid car.

Chevy Volt concept

Unlike a standard hybrid, which only uses the electric motor when traveling below 25mph, the Volt only uses its gas motor to run a generator that recharges the batteries. Using this method, Chevy is promising the Volt will travel 40 miles before the gas motor kicks in to recharge the batteries, delivering an additional 400 miles of travel. The Volt is to have a 6-7 gallon gas tank, so with a total distance of 440 miles, this works out to essentially 63mpg… promised due out in 2009 (a NY Times report reveals that with better battery management, the Volt could achieve 100mpg).

Back to the Future

in 1995, the Clinton Administration challenged U.S. automakers to build an 80mpg family-friendly passenger car. Chrysler responded with the 1996 Dodge Intrepid ESX:

1996 Dodge Intrepid ESX1

…a concept hybrid gas/electric car, the ESX used a three cylinder 1.8L diesel motor, but battery technology was still lagging (hauling around a trunkload of heavy lead-acid “car batteries” killed the range), and the lightweight composite materials used for the body would of made the car ridiculously expensive (over $90,000 in today’s dollars).

Two years later, Chrysler tried again with the ESX2:

1998 Dodge Intrepid ESX2

The ESX2 was a big cost improvement over the ESX1, coming in around $37,000 (roughly $15,000 more than a stock Intrepid). Instead of the “Prius-like” use of electric power for speeds below 25mph, the ESX2 was a “mybrid” (“mild hybrid”), similar to the Saturn Aura hybrid, which uses the electric motor only to jar the car from a dead stop, running on gasoline the rest of the time. But still, the vehicle was unable to attain the desired “80mpg” threshhold.

Chrysler’s last attempt at an 80mpg passenger car was the ESX3:

2000 Dodge Intrepid ESX3

Though also a “mybrid”, improvements in plastics/weight, electronics and battery technology allowed the ESX3 to promise 72mpg… the closest yet to reaching that 80mpg goal… with a top speed of 85mph (more than adequate for highway driving). There is some debate over whether this concept was produced in 2000 or 2003, but I’m fairly certain it was scrapped in 2000, when the incoming Bush Administration repealed Clinton’s challenge.

Yes, America was building 72mpg hybrids and full-electric vehicles before two oilmen named Bush & Cheney took over the White House.

So, what on Earth are they driving in the rest of the world where gasoline is between $7-$25 a gallon? They definitely aren’t tooling around in American-made 12mpg SUV’s. What are they driving and why can’t we get them here today? Here are a few examples of what is out there RIGHT NOW:

1) The Smart “FourTwo”: Now being sold in the U.S., the Mercedes owned, Ford designed, European built tiny two seater delivers a paltry 40mpg city, 45mpg highway (Popular Mechanics reported an even more paltry 33mpg in mixed driving):

Pink Panther FourTwo

The basic FourTwo (sometimes called the “ForTwo”) achieves it’s mileage via a tiny 1.0L three cylinder standard gasoline engine. I don’t know about you, but I’d expect (nay, “demand”) that a vehicle THAT small get far better mileage than your standard Toyota Corolla.

One question that immediately leaps to most people’s mind when they first set eyes on the FourTwo is “*safety*”. Not only is the FourTwo safer than a motorcycle would be if it were in a collision with another car, the FourTwo even stands up better than many full-sized passenger cars and SUV’s.

Diesel engines get better gas mileage than gasoline, but U.S. emissions restrictions have so far prevented this diesel version of the FourTwo from being sold in the U.S.. A hybrid powertrain would help push the mileage even higher. But in Europe, why do just one or the other when you can do both?

The 2008 FourTwo diesel hybrid cdi
2009 FourTwo diesel hybrid cdi

71mpg (with some estimates as high as 85mpg) from a car in production and being sold in Europe right now.

2) The Volkswagen Polo BlueMotion has been selling in Germany for years. This four passenger 3cyl diesel gets just over 46city/62hwy:

VW Polo BlueMotion

Not a hybrid, just a small lightweight design and fuel-sipping tiny engine. VW promises the 2009 Polo will achieve “72.4mpg” with lower emissions than a Toyota Prius. And remember, this is NOT a hybrid!

3) Speaking of the Toyota Prius, after-market kits already exist to convert the standard hybrid into a “PHEV” (“Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle”) that runs on battery power ALL the time, not just at speeds under 25mph. Charge the batteries at home overnight to achieve up to 100mpg:


 
 
Inventors everywhere, in the never-ending quest to build a better mousetrap, have produced all types of amazing concept vehicles. Some of my favorites:

Sports Car Hybrid, Built by Kids, Runs on Soybeans, 0-to-60 in 4 Seconds:
Soybean Sports Car

 
 

The Avion: Home-Built Car Averages 113 Miles a Gallon.
The Avion

 
 

The Loremo AG: Sporty 157 mpg Diesel
The Loremo

 
 

And probably the most famous of all, the all-electric Tesla sports car:

The 2008 Tesla
2008 Tesla

In production now, there is already a one-year waiting list for the $109,000, eco-Green, 0-60 in 4 seconds car of the future. Tesla hopes to eventually become a mainstream builder of all-electric vehicles, but wisely chose an exotic sports car as their debut vehicle to show off the technology, with a high profit margin and low production numbers beneficial to a company just starting out.
 
 
(Notice I didn’t list any “fuel cell” or “natural gas” powered vehicles, both of which require additional infrastructure… hydrogen and CNG “gas” stations for refueling… installed across the country). E85 Ethanol, supported by nearly all new GM vehicles, may help reduce our dependence on oil, but is almost as polluting as gas, gets the same miles-per-dollar, and the technology does not yet exist to use something other than *food*… aka “corn” and “sugarcane”… as fuel. Until these limitations are overcome, these are not practical “immediate” solutions to the world’s fuel crisis.

ADDENDUM: On Thursday, the price of oil fell below the $50/barrel mark, down from its high of $147/barrel just last July. A reminder that $50/barrel is still 70% higher than the price of oil before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Yet oddly, the price of gasoline isn’t 70% higher than it was in March of ’03. But we mustn’t become complacent, thinking that with the price of gasoline becoming affordable again, that the crisis is “over” and the urgent need for a vehicle that greatly reduces our dependency on ALL oil… not just foreign oil… is of extreme and immediate importance.

Thursday, Congress voted AGAINST giving U.S. automakers the additional $25 Billion they say they need until they come up with a viable recovery plan detailing exactly how they’ll spend the money. Congress refused to give Treasury Secretary Paulson the $700 Billion he requested to bailout the Financial Markets until he explained what he intended to do with the money, so why not automakers? I don’t know about you, but that seems pretty logical to me. The Big Three have one month to come up with a plan… and this time, I don’t think they’ll be taking their private corporate jets back to Washington to beg for money (a bit like pulling up to the soup kitchen in a Limo).

The technology for VASTLY more fuel efficient vehicles is here NOW, TODAY. And as I’ve proved above, when the government demands it, we can make high mileage vehicles. We led the world just a decade ago, and only outdated federal restrictions that desperately need to be re-evaluated, and the lack of a government mandate, are preventing U.S. automakers from building (and Europe from selling) the kind of high mileage, low emissions vehicles so much in demand by most Americans today.

PS: In a related note, the last Yugo rolled off the production line Thursday as the Serbian automaker closed its doors for good. Much like the old Volkswagen Beetle, the Yugo went virtually unchanged since its U.S. debut in 1986 (built in then Communist Yugoslavia):

Ad for the 1987 Yugo   The last of the 2008 Yugo assembly line
1987 Yugo ad            2008 Yugo assembly line

And, in case you were wondering, gas mileage of the 1989 Yugo: 23city/29hwy.


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