The car of the future

Published July 1, 2002

In “Hybrid Cars: Less Fuel but More Costs” (Business Week, April 15, 2002), Paul Raeburn bursts the bubble of those relying on the future of electricity to power our automobiles … vehicles that are now, and will be long into the future, best suited for the internal combustion engine.

Conventional technology wins

Raeburn reports on research by John DeCicco, now of Environmental Defense, showing the added costs of hybrid automobiles are 1.5 to 3 times the added costs of “conventional improvements.” Hybrid cars generate electric power on board, through the heat generated from braking friction, to assist the internal combustion engine when cruising at constant speeds. By conventional improvements, Raeburn foresees the use of new technologies that will make engines more efficient.

There are currently many high-mileage compact cars on U.S. roads. The Honda Civic HX, Toyota Corolla, Toyota Echo, Saturn S-Series, Chevrolet Prizm, Mitsubishi Mirage, Volkswagen Golf, and the new Beetle turbo-diesel all get 40 or more miles per gallon.

These cars collectively represent just 2 percent of the vehicles traveling U.S. roads. While they are the darlings of environmental zealots and the liberal press, they leave the average U.S. driver totally underwhelmed. As a nation, we are almost totally unwilling to trade performance, function, and safety for high mileage.

In addition to hybrid cars, the advances in technology that may save fuel are powered by fuel cells and electric batteries. The latter is a hopeless dream: The advent of a light, quickly rechargeable, non-toxic super-power storage battery will likely arrive in a dead heat with the much-sought-after perpetual motion machine.

The much-hyped fuel cell requires the isolation and distribution of hydrogen (remember the Hindenburg). It sounds great—just mix oxygen and hydrogen and you get electricity and water— but the reality yields awesome mountains to climb. Fuel cells will likely power stationary home and industrial operations long before they become light enough and cheap enough to power an automobile economically.

Adding more kindling to threaten the dreams of anti-industrial liberals, we must not forget that even electric cars and fuel cell delivery systems require pumping out huge quantities of gases unwelcome in the atmosphere.

A concurrent dream—using biofuels to reduce dependence on petroleum—means relying on fuels like ethanol and bio-diesel, which demand vast quantities of electric power, making them less efficient than conventional gasoline engines. No major new generating plant, nuclear or otherwise, has been built in the U.S. in 30 years, making these alternate fuels little more than a fairy tale for the U.S. economy.

Mileage vs. safety

And yet the biggest problem with any effort to mandate improved fuel efficiency is the one swept under the rug: Fuel-efficiency mandates kill people.

The federal government has been legislating improved fuel economy since 1975, when the Energy Policy and Conservation Act set specific Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1985. Following that, the government allowed the Department of Transportation (DOT) to make standards more stringent in subsequent years.

Presently, the standards require automobile manufacturers to assemble fleets that meet an average level of fuel economy of 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg) for passenger cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks.

In 1989, a Harvard-Brookings Institution (no conservative think tanks, these) report showed that reducing a car’s weight by 500 pounds increases fatalities by 2,200 to 3,900 per year. In similar research, the U.S. Department of Transportation found passenger car standards have already caused an additional 2,000 deaths and 20,000 serious injuries each year. Perhaps the best study was performed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which concluded 2,700 to 4,700 auto-related deaths have occurred annually as a result of light-weighting our automobiles.

Ralph Nader—the man who first questioned the wonderfulness of the automobile and its internal combustion engine—was asked over 30 years ago what type of car he would prefer to drive. Nader responded, “a large, heavy car, because it is much safer.” Nader now supports increased CAFE standards, because destroying capitalism has become much more important to him than human safety.

Free market the best option

Clean air and energy independence are worthy goals, but achieving them through mandated car mileage is foolish. The free market will determine who drives what vehicle and why. A recent survey of car buyers by Maritz Marketing Research indicates that fuel economy ranks 25th among considerations in the decision to buy a particular car. Such things as reliability, value, durability, comfort, handling, quietness, and styling rank well above fuel economy.

As for energy independence, any decent economist can explain the costs and benefits of importing foreign oil into our energetic economy. While OPEC struggles to keep a barrel of oil above $20, the U.S. markets have remained calm, in spite of the fact environmental zealots have succeeded in forbidding most domestic drilling.

There is much at stake in the CAFE debate, and much of it is intangible. The intrinsic power of our nation lies in the unencumbered mobility of its people—socially, economically, and physically. The driving force that powers this mobility is our freedom to move about the country cheaply and at will.

These are freedoms not shared in any totalitarian regime, and make no mistake about it … socialism can survive only in a totalitarian regime. People can be held down to the lowest common denominator required by socialism only if some form of a gun is held to their collective heads.

As Brock Yates, editor-at-large of Car and Driver magazine, wrote in an article last February in the Wall Street Journal, “portraying a bozo trundling aimlessly around in his gas-guzzling, three-ton SUV is a slander on the millions who use their private vehicles each day for legitimate personal needs. … In the real world, the car and the light truck are the life blood of a nation perpetually on the move.”

Dr. Jay Lehr is Science Director for The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

see “The Increasing Sustainability of Cars, Trucks, and the Internal Combustion Engine,” Heartland Policy Study No. 95, available on the Heartland Web site.