What does a 3,145 MPG Car Mean for America?

Bryan RAugust 9th, 2007
By: Bryan R

Car races usually mean a lot of high-powered cars consuming incredible amounts of fuel with the sole purpose of getting around a track as fast as possible. However, not all car races fit this mold. For example, the SuperMileage Competition is an annual event organized by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) where engineering schools from across the globe compete against one another to maximize vehicle efficiency by almost any means possible. The rules are simple: each team gets one engine, one gallon of gasoline and a few guidelines. The goal is to travel as far as possible on that one gallon of gas; the results are amazing.

In 2006, a team from the University of British Columbia built a vehicle that achieved an astounding 3,145 MPG (yes, that is miles per gallon) during the competition in Marshall, Michigan. Just to put that into perspective, that is about 100 times more efficient than the venerable Toyota Corolla and 200 times more efficient than your average two ton SUV. So what does this mean for the typical American car owner?

First, let's start with a bit of background on how the average American vehicle measures up in terms of efficiency. In the late 1970s, the U.S. vehicle fleet efficiency hovered around 16 MPG for cars and trucks. However, as a response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the 1979 energy crisis, the U.S. congress enacted the Corporate Average Fleet Efficiency Legislation (also known as the CAFE Standards), which required automakers to improve vehicle fuel efficiency.

After congress enacted the vehicle standards, they set an immediate initial target of 18 MPG for the U.S. auto fleet. That target would later be changed in 1980 and once more in 1985 when it was finally set to 27.5 MPG. Vehicle standards have remained unchanged since 1985 however, with the exception of trucks, which were set to a target of 22.2 MPG by 2007 [ed. Since the initial publication of this article, CAFE standards have been revamped upwards].

Another measure of American vehicle efficiency is to only consider the average fuel economy for newer cars. In the chart below, we see a steady improvement in MPG each year for new cars until 1987, when vehicle efficiency begins to taper off. By the 90s, it had leveled off completely. The difference between this graph and the one before it is that the first graph represents the efficiency of all vehicles on the road in a given year, while the second graph displays the fuel efficiency for only the "new" cars made on that year.

The steady improvement in fleet efficiency in the late '70s through the mid '80s was due to two main reasons. First, there is a direct and obvious connection between the fuel economy and the dates when CAFE standards forced automakers to improve vehicle efficiencies. The second motivation is no surprise - money. The average price of gasoline has nearly doubled from an inflation-adjusted $1.60 per gallon in the '70s to the $2.75 per gallon you pay today. (Source: www.energy.ca.gov). [ed. One year later, we're now paying an average of $3.40 per gallon in the Seattle area!]

Though gas prices have steadily risen over the last ten years, surprisingly, vehicle efficiency has not. Consumers and politicians have become increasingly vocal about their concerns however, as the doomsday warnings of oil shortages abound and a sluggish economy threatens to tighten budgets. Lastly, the vast majority of the scientific community has agreed that the ominous specter of global warming is on our doorstep, which has caused a great many policy makers to suggest aggressive measures to improve vehicle fuel efficiency.

The Historical Price of Gasoline

In response to this recent shift in thinking and the growing market for high efficiency vehicles, car manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda have already taken the lead by popularizing hybrid models that boast upwards of 40+ miles per gallon. U.S. automakers, looking at closing the gap with their Japanese counterparts and getting a piece of the pie, hope to play catch-up by unveiling their own hybrids and smaller compact cars in the near future.

With talk of alternative vehicle power sources such hydrogen and electricity, the SAE SuperMileage competition does well to illustrate that the gasoline engine should not be forgotten quite yet. While the vehicles in the SuperMileage Competition aren't your average commuter cars, the vehicles are required to carry a 130 pound human around a track at speeds of 15-25 MPH demonstrating that these vehicles aren't too far away from their real-world counterparts.

At the end of the day however, the question is whether or not Americans will be ready to trade in their plush SUVs and weekend sports cars if super-efficient cars are available. The idea of the companion car is entrenched in the American psyche, which can be readily identified in car ads where cars are symbolized as a hip buddy, family protector or a sultry partner. But steady sales of the Toyota Prius and other efficient cars are positive indicators that perhaps Americans are ready for a change.

Addendum: The Numbers on Gasoline

Gasoline contains some 34.2 mega-joules (34,200,000 joules) of energy per liter. Consider a 100 watt light bulb: with one liter of gasoline (about 1/4 of a gallon) you could power that 100-watt bulb for 95 hours straight! In fact, gasoline is so energy rich (more than coal, wood, or biomass (per unit mass)) that only a few conventional fuels are energetically richer, such as diesel (per unit volume) or uranium (per unit mass). (Source: http://astro.berkeley.edu).

Let's do a little math: our current CAFE standard for passenger cars is 27.5 MPG [ed. now revised upwards]. This is approximately 0.87% of what the University of British Columbia (UBC) team achieved not even 1% of CAFE standards. If our CAFE standard were 1% of the UBC car it would be at least 31.45 MPG and if it were 3% it would be 94.35 MPG. Granted, the UBC car was highly experimental and not intended to be an everyday car. However, to suggest that even when using conventional technology our cars cannot achieve substantial increases in fuel efficiency simply isn't true. After all, the UBC car uses a standard 4-stroke engine (like most cars) with standard gasoline.

Each year car companies achieve greater amounts of horsepower per liter (i.e. greater amounts of power for a given engine size *see example below ) and use increasingly sophisticated materials that are both stronger and lighter. Yet we fail to see a dramatic improvement in fuel efficiency. Yes, cars have been getting heavier for safety reasons, but lets look at the Honda Civic DX as an example.

In 1980 the Civic weighed 1797 lbs but in 2007 it ballooned to 2586 an increase of 800 pounds. An airbag (even several of them) does not weight 800 pounds, nor do other safety improvements like a stronger roll cage, ABS brakes, or a more crash resistant gas tank. Instead, the weight has come from larger and larger engines, bigger and bigger cars, greater numbers of engine accessories, and superfluous luxury options. In essence, the bulk of the weight gain has not been for safety but for frills, all at the cost of improved efficiency.

Lastly, car companies have suggested that increasing CAFE standards (or mandating higher fuel economy through new programs not connected to the CAFE) poses a daunting technical challenge and an economic impossibility. These arguments are not new and were even posed when the CAFE standards were originally implemented in the 1970s and updated in the 1980s. For example, in 1985 a New York Times article (6/27/85) said that the U.S. actually altered CAFE standards during that era, thereby allowing Ford and GM to escape penalties for being under the CAFE standards of that time. However, since that time, both Ford and GM have been able to stay above the current level without the need for aid or credits. Perhaps this is because more families are opting for SUVs that sneak by under the less demanding light truck CAFE classification, but another reason is that the economic and regulatory conditions of the time required companies to innovate in new directions. In the end, Ford and GM did not go under, technologies were invented, CAFE standards were met and life went on.

Global warming is real, the oil market is becoming increasingly volatile, gasoline prices are rising and we place greater levels of our economic and societal security into far-flung regions of the world. Whether via CAFE standards or another means, fleet efficiency needs to increase. Competitions such as the SuperMileage demonstrate to us what is possible and now we have to determine what is tangible so how about we take the first step and shoot for that 1% mark. Or how about even 2%?

*Example: The Honda Civic DX is a car known for its great mileage. In 1980 a civic had 67 horsepower (HP) and a 1.5 liter (L) engine size. 67 HP / 1.5 L = 44.6 HP per liter. In 1994 the same trim civic had 102 HP with a 1.5 L engine. 102 / 1.5 L = 68 HP per liter. In 2007 the same trim civic had 140 HP and a 1.8 L engine. 140 / 1.8 L = 77 HP / liter. As can be seen, we are making more and more HP per liter but the car itself went from 32 MPG to 34 MPG between 1980 and 2007, respectively. Granted, this is a 2 MPG improvement (and improvement of 5% from 1980 to 2007) but horsepower increased from 44 HP/L to 77 HP/L (and improvement of 42% from 1980 to 2007!). Its amazing that we have the technical experience and ingenuity to improve our HP / L ratio by 42% yet car companies claim that forcing them to improve their efficiencies via higher CAFE standards is technically daunting and economically impossible.

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