Over-driven: why our cars guzzle gas, what to do about it

We use how much gas?

From more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to tapping the strategic oil reserve, politicians and pundits spar daily over the best solution to America's ongoing fuel crisis. But no matter which side of the fence they're on, almost everyone can agree on one thing: Americans are going to have to get used to paying more for their gas than they have in years past; possibly much more. The specter of permanently higher gas prices has already driven consumers and automakers to take a long, hard look at the fuel economy ratings on the vehicles that Americans own and produce, and what they've found has sparked an aggressive search for ways to squeeze more miles out of each gallon. In this brief article, I'll take a look at why the current American auto fleet is so inefficient, and at what's being done to improve it. HangZhou Night Net

Prior to the recent spike in oil prices, the US enjoyed a relatively long period of extremely cheap gas relative to the rest of the world. During that time, US automakers sold the public on the idea that large trucks and SUVs equipped with large engines were ideal for family transport. Better yet for the automakers, these large vehicles were cheap to make, which meant large profit margins. The technology packaged inside them wasn’t particularly advanced, based as they were on fairly unstressed, large-capacity engines that paid lip service to the idea of fuel efficiency.

The boom in SUV sales increased in the early 2000s, when small businesses were granted a tax break for purchasing vehicles that weighed more than 6000 lbs. Intended presumably to help general contractors offset the cost of their trucks for hauling, the ultimate effect of this change was that even more large SUVs appeared on the road. Automakers, domestic and foreign, moved quickly to capitalize on the public's newfound appetite for bigger rigs and lower MPGs. For instance, shortly after the tax break was enacted, BMW managed to find an extra 5 lbs somewhere on their X5 SUV that previously topped the scales at a mere 5995 lbs, no doubt ensuring a raft of extra sales. Indeed, between 1987 and 2004, light truck ownership (including both trucks and SUVs) almost doubled, from 28 percent to 53 percent.

A Ford F650: about as aerodynamic as the wall it's in front of. Image: Kecko @ Flickr

It would be wrong, however, to think that America’s fuel economy problem is solely due to the SUV and truck market. American consumers have traditionally demanded larger cars for their money than Europe or Japan. Large cars are heavy cars, and heavy cars also need big engines. Those big engines need more fuel, so pretty much everyone, be they a driver of a car, truck, or SUV got used to poor fuel efficiency.

And who can blame them? Not only was gas cheap, but Congress repeatedly failed to raise federal fuel efficiency regulations, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE standards. Environmentalists and people with concerns over energy security railed against this trend, but corporate dollars trump good intentions. CAFE mandates that automakers achieve an average fuel economy figure across their range, and levies fines based on missing this target multiplied by the total number of vehicles sold each year. Currently, CAFE demands 27.5 mpg for cars, and 22.5 mpg for trucks below 8500 lbs. Vehicles weighing more than 8500 lbs are exempt from CAFE.

However, all good parties come to an end, and as crude oil prices show signs of settling well above $100 barrel, gas-guzzling drivers are beginning to have second thoughts.