Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Are we what we drive?

Originally published in the January 2008 issue of The Mountaineer.

By Jim Adcock
What’s the difference in capacity between a Prius, a large pickup, and a large SUV? Answer:Not much. Over 90 percent of the time each is carrying only one person down the road.

Global warming is caused by fossil fuels. The U.S., with 1/20th of the world’s population, consumes a third of the world’s oil. We consume oil at twice the per-person rate of the other developed nations and 15 times that of less developed nations. Our national fuel economy standards for cars and trucks are one-half that of other developed nations, including Europe, Japan and even China.

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Do we love the planet, or are we loving the planet to death? Do we really need to drive an SUV to the trailhead, or can something smaller get us there? Two generations ago our predecessors were driving Model-T’s up to Mt. Rainier while getting better gas mileage thanthe average American vehicle gets today. One generation ago, Mountaineers were taking mass transit together to ski at Meany Lodge.

To avoid the worst effects of global warming and climate catastrophe, the Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we need to reduce fuel consumption by 2 percent a year. With the U.S. population growing 1 percent a year, this means we need to increase fuel economy by 3 percent a year. With an average car life of about 10 years, this means that cars we buy now need to be a third more fuel efficient than the cars we have purchased in the past. There is only one technology available today that can meet this requirement: hybrid vehicles.

Today there are only four high-performance hybrid vehicles available to U.S. consumers, but over the next decade there will be an explosion of new high-efficiency hybrids on the market. With global oil reserves becoming exhausted, and 20 million additional vehicles hitting the road each year, expect gas prices to continue to double about every six years. In essence, a vehicle purchased today will be facing $100 fill-ups during its lifetime.

In reducing greenhouse emissions from vehicles, basically only three things matter: 1) the mpg that the vehicle achieves; 2) how few miles a year the vehicle is driven; and 3) how many people share that ride. According to the EPA, the most fuel-efficient car in the world gets almost 13,000 mpg. Mater Dei High School students have built a car that gets over 1,300 mpg. Detroit is still selling consumers trucks and SUVs that get 13 mpg. In this essence, more than 99 percent of the energy you put in your tank is just going up in smoke.

So, in buying a new car, we need at least one-third better fuel economy. Previously we might have bought a car that gets 20 mpg. Now we need to buy cars that get 30 mpg. Unfortunately, the list of vehicles that achieve 30 mpg in America is very short: hybrids Prius, Civic, Camry and Altima, and the conventional Fit, Yaris and Corolla. There is oneSUV: the Ford Escape Hybrid. In Europe there are 2,000 models available with 30 mpg or more,and three dozen with the mpg of a Prius, but the U.S. government blocks their import.

There is one other unheralded but widely available technology that can be plugged into any car or truck to instantly double the fuel efficiency of that vehicle. It is called a “passenger.” Plug a passenger into the seat next to you and the vehicle has just doubled its efficiency. A Prius, for example has now doubled from 50 to 100 mpg per passenger—efficient enough to solve the IPCC’s long-term goals for personal transportation greenhouse gas reductions.

As a club we need to actively discourage single-occupancy vehicles to club events and outings. We need to courteously support and welcome those members who choose not to drive a vehicle. We need to support mass transit options. And as individual Mountaineers, we need to step up to the plate and make sure that our next vehicle gets at least 30 mpg.

This is a political problem, not a technical one, and can only be solved by writing to our representatives in Congress. Sen. Maria Cantwell is on the Senate Transportation Committee, which makes her a logical recipient for your letters and e-mails: http://cantwell.senate.gov/.

Jim Adcock is an electrical engineer and member of the Conservation Division of The Mountaineers.

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