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Moving Everyone Up the Efficiency Ladder

Author sees a way to reduce American oil imports to zero, but carmakers have to get serious.

By Charles Whalen

For me there is not much difference between SUV and HIV. They are both insidious, corrosive, and malignant infections that are undermining and corrupting our physical health as well as our economic health.

But even if we don't end up with the $50+ oil worst case scenario in the wake of a war in Iraq, we still have an enormous energy problem with our crippling dependence on Middle East oil. This problem is obviously the underlying factor which is driving our war machine and all our foreign policy decisions. This is a problem that is not going to go away even if the whole Iraq thing does end up being a "cake-walk" and we have $18 oil for the next 8 years. So how do we deal with the problem under this best case scenario where there is no compelling incentive (i.e. $50+ oil) to force the American people to change their gluttonous and wasteful lifestyle?

Well, let me lay out for you my vision of how we could solve this problem under the best case scenario where we crush Saddam in a "cake-walk" and have $18 oil for the next 8 years.

First, we have to take a sober look at the US automobile market, be realistic, accept it for what it is, and look at the positive aspects of the market and try to work within the that framework.

The US automobile market is very complex; there is as much variety of choices and selection available as there is diversity of the consumers buying those cars and their varied needs and reasons for buying. This reflects a very mature and sophisticated market. These are all very positive things. This is capitalism working at its best, and I applaud that. I wouldn't want to see everyone driving around in Honda Civics anyway, because then everyone would be as much of a self-righteous bore as I am, and we all know how insufferable that would be.

So I celebrate diversity in the marketplace. That is a positive thing. Actually, I have nothing against SUVs per se. I think they're pretty cool, and sometimes I even fantasize about driving around in one of those 8-mpg Hummers and terrorizing everyone on the road to get out of my way. I'm tired of being bullied and pushed around in my little Civic. But then I just take a deep breath and let the feeling pass. The only problem I really have with SUVs is their 15-mpg fuel consumption and also the aggressive way that people drive them on the road.

So how do we solve the oil dependency problem if we accept the automobile market as it is and the fact that people are not going to give up their SUVs?

OK, let's dissect the market and look at the stratification of various levels within it. The way to think of it is as a "mpg" fuel-efficiency curve, or ladder if you will. (And for the sake of simplicity, for the moment let's ignore the nascent hybrids currently on the market, which are still quite immature.) You with your 1991 Civic and me with my 1993 Civic, we are standing on the very top step of the ladder along with drivers of Nissan Sentras, Toyota Tercels, Geo Metros, and other such cars at around 34 mpg city and 40 mpg hwy.

Believe it or not, this could actually be as much as 30% or more of the entire automobile market. At the other end of the spectrum, on the second step from the bottom of the ladder, stand all the 15-mpg SUV drivers, and on the bottom step stands the 8-mpg Hummer drivers. Those are basically the two extremes of the ladder or curve, and then of course you have everything else in between.

Now the way to solve our oil dependency problem is to move the entire curve upward by 300%, i.e. by a factor of 3; or to think of it in terms of the ladder metaphor, we need everyone on the ladder to more or less simultaneously climb 10 steps up the ladder in unison. If we all did this, you and I would still be standing on the top step of the ladder (because that is where we choose to be), and the SUV and Hummer drivers would still be standing on the bottom two steps, respectively (because that is where they choose to be).

But we would all be standing 10 steps higher than we are right now. That way, we would preserve the freedom of choice and tremendous variety of selection and the sophistication of the American automobile market, which makes it the greatest automobile market in the world and we Americans the most fortunate people in the world.

SUV drivers wouldn't have to give up their SUVs. Everyone could have what he wants, and yet at the same time we would no longer have to import any oil whatsoever from any other country, not even from Canada, Mexico, or Venezuela. In fact, as you said, we would even become a net exporter of oil (at least for the next 5-10 years or so).

So it's like we could all have our cake and eat it too. This would be the best of all possible worlds. And you know what the amazing thing is? This is not just some pie-in-the-sky fantasy. This is actually doable right now with today's currently available commercial technology and materials.

Let me elaborate how we do this in practical terms, although I think you are probably way ahead of my long, drawn out writing style and have already figured it out from the ladder metaphor above. But what the heck, I'll belabor the analysis anyway because it is so important.

You and I with our 34-mpg Honda Civics, we would move our ten steps up the ladder, or 300% move on the parallel upwards shift of the fuel-efficiency curve, however you want to look at it, by trading in our '91 and '93 Civics and buying new 104-mpg Toyota ES3 diesel-electric hybrids (or similar such cars from Honda or VW), which we all know Toyota could put into commercial production tomorrow and make a profit on them if they really wanted to.

On the lower end of the scale, for the SUVs, despite my cynism of carmaker efforts to mainly concentrate on hybridizing their SUV offerings, this is actually the most crucial and critical piece of the puzzle and will go the farthest towards solving the oil dependency problem. I guess it is just today as I am writing this that I am starting to realize and understand this. I am thinking as I am writing, so this is an evolutionary thought process for all of us.

What the automakers really need to do is to strive to achieve somewhere between 35 to 45 mpg in their development efforts to hybridize their SUVs. That way, all the SUV drivers could also move in unison 10 steps up the ladder from their position on the second-to-bottom step, or make the 300% jump on the parallel upwards shift of the fuel-efficiency curve, however you want to look at it, from 15 mpg to 35-45 mpg.

And finally, on the bottom rung of the ladder, we have the 8-mpg Hummer gas-hogs, bless their hearts. No, we won't leave them out either. This is a big tent and we want everyone in it. We're being inclusive today and just trying to get along with everyone. I think I read somewhere that the US Army is working with GM and maybe one of the electric drive train makers like UQM or some company like that to hybridize the Hummer for the military. Now if they could also make a 300% jump, from 8 mpg to say, 24 mpg, and then also transfer that to the commercial sector where GM could sell a retail version of a hybrid Hummer, we'd be looking great.

Then of course there is everything else in between, but I think you get my point, so I'll just leave it to the automakers to fill in the gaps and complete the picture by hybridizing everything else they sell.

And voila, there you have your simultaneous 300% parallel upwards shift of the fuel-efficiency curve for the entire US auto market. No more oil imports, from anywhere! No more Middle East oil wars! Saddam can gas the Kurds, the Shiites, the Iranians, and the Saudis; or the Saudis can gas Saddam; or Saddam's own people can gas him; and you know what? I really don't care. It's none of my business, and it's none of our business! (Except, of course, for the fact that we gave them all those chemical weapons in the first place!) They can all kill each other for all I'm concerned. I want no part of it. Let them solve their own problems. And let's get our boys and girls the hell out of there and out of harm's way! Bring our boys and girls home and let them all drive Hummer hybrids on main street! Then they won't have to worry about sand clogging up the gears.

Problem solved!

Well, actually, that's not a permanent solution because worldwide oil production is still going to peak around 2010. So we would eventually run into the same kind of oil problem at some point down the road. But at least this solution would buy us another 10 to 20 years of time and breathing space while we continue our RandD efforts and investments to try to transition ourselves to a fuel-cell hydrogen-based economy (the most critical aspect of which appears to be the problem of trying to find a cheap and efficient way to produce hydrogen, the lightest and most abundant element of the universe yet which is so hard to isolate). And hopefully we wouldn't have to kill tens of thousands of people in the Middle East in the meantime while we're at it.

Times Article Viewed: 5564
Published: 15-Nov-2002

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