Time to look beyond fuel efficiency in cars


US President Barack Obama is trying to get automobile makers to think back to nearly a century in fuel efficiency. In this, Henry Ford, the country’s legendary carmaker, wasn’t at the forefront.

In 1916, someone was displeased with what he considered cars’ high fuel consumption. At the time, Ford’s Model T car was eight years in production. A photograph shows the gentleman in deep concentration as he drove the skeletal vehicle. His female passenger waves at the camera.

A petrol engine originally designed for a bicycle powered the vehicle. It wasn’t much of a technological breakthrough. It was an attempt to refine what was already known. Ford and other automobile pioneer makers went on refining.

Ten days ago, Obama announced a new refining plan. Come 2025, vehicles have to meet a 54.5 miles per gallon requirement. That’s almost double the current rate.

The US gallon is, strangely, 20 per cent less than the imperial one. The new plan, therefore, means 21.5 kilometres per litre.

Two catches exist. The targeted figure is an average for the national fleet. Heavy vehicles will still consume more fuel for short distances, spewing carbon dioxide. Additionally, results from laboratories aren’t the same as those from actual driving.

Incidentally, the new US proposal calls for only 69 per cent of what the European Union aims to achieve in the next nine years. Moreover, Japan, a leader in automobile fuel efficiency, can be expected to continue doing so. Consequently, the US will still be limping.

That, however, is neither here nor there. The fact remains there hardly exists any breakthrough in what’s being done to achieve increased automobile fuel efficiency, or rather to get farther from the internal combustion engine, a long-term inevitability.

After all, fossil fuels, including petroleum, are remains of prehistoric organisms. They are exhaustible. Until new technological breakthroughs are made, automobile makers have only refining options.

They can, on a mass scale, use technologies that exist. These include making smaller direct-injection engines fitted with turbo chargers and with bodies of light but strong materials. They can also tinker with aerodynamics and gear ratios.

The result? Lighter and powerful vehicles, consuming less fuel.

Add to that the hybrid and battery-powered vehicles and an illusion of technological progress appears. An example exists — the Toyota Prius.

Commenting on the US plan, John DeCicco, a faculty fellow at the University of Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute, told the AFP: “The stuff we’re talking about is already in leading-edge engines…”

That’s hardly indicative of technological progress. What’s needed is some “technological madness.”

In the 1950s, the Ford Motor Company had a futuristic idea, a nuclear-powered car called Ford Nucleon. The company hoped nuclear reactors would get smaller. They did and the Soviet Union went on to use them to power satellites.

That’s not all. Equipment in nearly all spacecraft sending photographs of the likes of planet Mars are powered by contraptions called RTG. These contraptions use natural decay of plutonium. However, they aren’t nuclear reactors and are safe if they crash on earth.

Well, Obama should have told the automakers, “think of putting such contraptions under the hood” instead of an equivalent of “just refine what you know.”

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