Where’s My 100mpg Car?

By on June 11, 2007

I was listening to a talk radio show earlier this evening, and the host was in the middle of interviewing Clint Wilder, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution: The Next Big Growth and Investment Opportunity. During their discussion on conserving resources & recycling, they took a call from a guy with a great question; he said if his 1994 Honda Civic can get 45mpg, why hasn’t 13 years of automotive technological development improved gas mileage any more than it has?

That is an excellent question. My daughter drives a 1995 Civic with 120,000 miles on it, and I have personally seen it get 50mpg on the road. Heck, back in 1981 I bought new off the lot a Mazda GLC Sport; it would do close to 50mpg on the highway. So why are the EPA mileage estimates on the most fuel efficient car in America — the Toyota Prius — only 60/51mpg? (and the dirty little secret is that in real-world driving, the Prius is hard pressed to pull that off.) The next best is the Honda Civic Hybrid, which is rated at 49/51mpg.

That’s pretty pathetic when the top fuel mileage ratings for new cars is nearly matched by real-world mileage on decades-old machines. The new cars get slightly better fuel mileage only by using hybrid gas/electric motors, which have the side effect of increasing the complexity of the car’s mechanicals by a huge degree. The Civic without the hybrid drivetrain has an EPA rating of 30/40mpg; it’d be interesting to see how that compares to the EPA rating for the 1995 model year. I’d bet they’re close.

So what I’d like to know is why in the same amount of time, advances in technology have taken us from Apple computers like the 9500 that ran at 132MHz and cost $5,000, to the mighty Mac Pro, which runs two dual-core Intel processors at 2.66GHz, and costs half what the 9500 did in 1995. If the same progress had been made on the automotive front, I’d be driving a new Honda Civic that could go across the state of South Dakota on a gallon of gas, and would’ve cost me under $5,000. Or better yet, I’d be driving a Chevy Suburban that moves & handles like a Corvette, costs less than $10,000 and gets over 100mpg.

Ok, so that’s probably not a realistic expectation; advances in the computer industry can’t be compared to fuel economy advances. But shouldn’t we have done a bit better than that since the 1990’s? Or even the 1980’s?

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  1. Er, so you’re comparing your real-world highway experience in a civic with the EPA estimates for highway/city in a different car?

    I’ve driven mid 90’s civics. And I have seen them get close to 50 mpg. I’ve also seen them get about 25mpg. I owned a 2005 prius; I got everything from 30 mpg (100+ mph) to 80mpg (60mph, downhill from tahoe to SF, making a real effort to draft semis).

    I hope that shows that comparing outliers and anecdotal evidence is fairly useless. The EPA tests are flawed, of course, but they’re at least a general guideline.

    Could the industry in general have done a better job of improving in the past 20 years? Sure — if they hadn’t been legislatively required to also improve safety, and/or consumers hadn’t demanded better hp/weight ratios, and/or people were willing to live with aesthetically questionable design that would improve mileage (smaller wheels, better aerodynamics, etc).

    The car industry is pretty competitive. Miles per gallon is an increasingly important metric for buyers. If the market wants higher mileage, the industry will work itself out. And, to the extent that MPG hasn’t been the main focus of car buyers, isn’t it kind of disingenuous to imply that it should have been for car makers?

  2. The starrotor stuff looks mildly interesting, but keep in mind that their prototype (according to their own site) is currently producing 13hp and 18 ft/lbs of torque. It’s possible that those will cleanly scale up tenfold, of course. I’m a little skeptical, though. It doesn’t help that most of their claims are phrased in the hypothetical (“it should”, “is expected to”, “is projected to”, etc).

  3. I was reading the other day that since the automakers met the CAFE standards in the late 70s, there has been no dramatic innovation in fuel efficiency. I saw a graph that showed, when forced, automakers bought fuel efficiency steadily upward through the early 80s, but then met the government mandate and stopped.

    Part of their lack of interest is the light truck exception. “Light trucks” are not subject to CAFE, and all these new crossover SUVs are classified as light trucks, so they’re not applicable.

    They tried to get CAFE raised in the early 90s, but furious lobbying from Michigan legislators killed it.

    I think it’s a bit sad. My next car will likely be purchased based on fuel efficiency. My last personal standard was 20 m.p.g. My next car will have to get at least 25.

  4. Two quick points.

    If you can watch the movie “who killed the electric car.” If only half the movie is accurate you’ll scream at how much we are controlled.

    Next, if tomorrow all cars had to be 65mpg or better the price of gas would mysteriously “creep” up to the equivalent price that it is now because OPEC would “cut production”.

    It’s a negative attitude but when it comes to the “fuel” industry, we are totally controlled.

  5. There’s a great documentary called “Who Killed the Electric Car?.” Check it out if you’re interested in a slightly slanted take on what’s happening with fuel economy and the auto industry.

    By the way, the pulp prius says we average 34.4 mpg. Maybe SF needs more stop lights to charge the cell.

  6. Fascinating topic indeed and only to grow with recent articles in TIME, The Economist, etc. Thanks again for posting about Clean Tech. If you’re interested in receiving a copy for potential review, do drop me a line at felicia DOT sullivan AT harpercollins DOT com.

    Cheers, Felicia

  7. Interesting topic… I would think that AC, power steering, power everything and all the other options that have been added in the last 20yrs would deduct from any of the improvments that they did make. I’m sure they could do much better if they REALLY wanted.

    Its the same way that my latest Intel machine allows me to type word documents and email just as fast as my 386 machine. Of course my screen is much prettier now. :D

  8. I think aiken nailed this one on the head – it’s the market place driving this (more “stuff” to make even basic cars more luxurious than luxury models from 20-30 years ago, more horsepower) along with gov’t safety regulations that result in heavier vehicles.

    Re: CAFE – even beloved Toyota is fighting it, don’t blame Detroit (recent reports like to gloss over this). Can’t recall if they did in the 90s as previously mentioned, but it would not surprise me. That said, light trucks ARE subject to CAFE, though it allows a separate target MPG. After a certain weight I think CAFE no longer applies (3-4 tons unless I’m confusing things with the mileage sticker rules).
    Where the trickery in this comes in is cases like the PT Cruise and one of the Suburus (the one that’s a jacked-up sedan) – both were being classified as trucks so that their higher MPG would give the respective manufacturers CAFE credits for their other vehicles.

  9. Why does everyone ask the same questions, when we all know the answers. Your dealing with the oil company’s. They dont want that, so it will never happen. Look and see who the major stock holders of the car companys are.

  10. 120 MPG Internal Combustion Engine

    I need to raise capital to build and test my revolutionary, patentable, 120 MPG Internal Combustion Engine with my New more Efficient Thermodynamic Cycle.

    I plan to test the engine at the MIT Sloane Automotive Laboratory.

    Are you interested in investing or do you know of any funding ?

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    Mechanical Engineer 617-249-2968

  11. A couple of points to ponder…

    1. The oil industry (both US and abroad) won’t stop protesting fuel saving ideas/laws until EVERY LAST DROP of oil has been used. As alternatives become more attractive with higher oil prices, they may become less of a player in the big picture, but why would you expect them to do any different

    If you sold oil for a living, would you not want to sell AS MUCH AS YOU CAN to the public for AS MUCH AS YOU COULD? Of course you would. So stop complaining about evil corporations. They are there to maximize profits and return for their shareholders. Nothing evil (or good for that matter) about it. It is just the way it works.

    1. If it were left up to many environmentalists (myself included) gasoline would NEVER go below $3.00 or even $3.50 again. If market forces drive it down, I would tax the difference and invest it in alternative fuel research/intrastrcture.

    2. I am generally a free-market kind of person which point #2 above seems to contradict. The reason for this is that the market doesn’t often properly value things like ‘national security savings due to less reliance on foreign oil’ or ‘cleaner air due to cleaner burning fuels’ etc.

  12. One of my field service guys in NY back in the 80’s had a 81 or 82 VW Diesel pickup, that got close to 60MPG, I had an 82 S10 that got 25 and was miffed I could not fit in the VW or I’d have had one of those. Honda also had a Civic 2 seater called the HF, fastback/hatchback those got 51mpg. As far as hydrogen goes, honda had the neat little hydrogen powered car last year that even had it’s own H2 generator that hung on the wall, that vanished pretty quick. My suspicious side says that the petro and stock market does not want to provide something that is a one time sale and then makes the owner independent of the market. Same with solar, why would the power companies develop it for home use, thats cutting their own throats.

  13. Believe me when I tell you that we are seeing oil is in its last days as a use for energy. Because of that energy companies are going to raise prices up and up. Some of this has reason, exploring for new deposits, cost of extracting, workforce, etc…. but they are still making a huge profit right now. We can send a man to the moon but we cannot come up with an alternate energy form to move cars…..no it’s just not in the best interest of the wealthy not to let us have it. We will only see hydrogen fuel cells when gas prices are >$4 or $5 in the US and people just simply can’t get to work or kids to school. Just think….there is a break-even point as to where they can keep raising the price of gas and getting the workforce to show up for work. Profits are where it is at and until the profits of all other industries begin hurting because of the hit consumers are taking on their budgets for gas is only when hydrogen will make it mainstream. Until then, don’t expect to see any changes, but up, for the next ten years.

  14. The only reason Toyota is fighting CAFE is because it will force US manufacturers to become competitive in the MPG area, and Toyota is already kicking their collective butts in that regard… the less the government interferes there, the more money Toyota makes!

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