How far does your tank take you?

Recently my gas mileage doubled when I replaced my mechanically challenged car with a well worn but newer diesel-powered car. Do I feel greener? Perhaps a little, but deep down you know that mileage has to get much better before we can say that a car qualifies as being green. We just don’t have the same choice in public transport that Toronto, New York or London does, so a car is a requirement for many people.

It does make a real difference in finances when you fill up every two weeks rather than on a weekly basis. If the price goes up a little, well it isn’t a panic. More of my money stays in Canada rather than going to Norway or Venezuela or Saudi Arabia. Not that there’s anything wrong with international trade but our outflows on fuel have almost doubled in the past year.

But is doubling mileage ratings good enough to save people a lot of financial pain? A typical person may drive 20,000 km per year or 384 km per week. At 25 mpg (11.32L / 100 km), it is 43 liters a week (a tank), 50 mpg = 22 liters (1/2 tank) and at a fictional 100 mpg, it is 11 liters. When the price of fuel rises to $3 per litre, the average car would use $129 of fuel per week or $516 per month. The double mileage car costs $66 / week and the non-existent supercar would use only $33 / week.

Canada annual gas and diesel sales at the retail pumps are roughly 55 billion litres. In comparison New Brunswick uses about 1.5 billion litres each year. Cutting fuel use in half would save NB drivers roughly $750 million dollars a year at $1 per liter pump prices. Road transportation is roughly 35% of Canadian total oil use and 23% here in New Brunswick as there is large use of heavy oil for power generation.

There is some hope on the horizon. Heard about the X prize for Space? The X PRIZE was inspired by the $25,000 Orteig Prize, offered in 1919 by wealthy hotelier Raymond Orteig, to the first pilot who could fly non-stop between New York and Paris. The winner was Charles Lindbergh and an era of air transportation began.

This year an automotive X prize was announced for the development of a realistic 4-person vehicle that will achieve 100 miles per gallon equivalent. This means that electric or diesel can also apply. A multi-million prize will be awarded to the group who designs a vehicle that can win a long distance race and meet the various standard demand such as emissions, features, and cost of vehicle. 100 mpg is roughly four times higher than the present “CAFE” fuel standards for the auto industry.

Why pick a target of 100 miles per US gallon, you might ask? The foundation estimates that at 20 miles per gallon today, it takes five gallons to go 100 miles. At 100 mpg, it just takes one gallon. Therefore, 4 gallons are saved. Above 100 mpg the law of diminishing returns kicks in harder. If 200 mpg had been chosen, then only ½ gallon more would have been saved but it becomes much more difficult to build an attractive, marketable vehicle.

There are 43 groups that have signed a letter of intent to compete and 300 who have inquired about the contest. One of the entrants is a BC company called Fuel Vapour Technologies who had been developing a three-wheel sportster called the “Alé”.

Vehicle mileage is related to the weight of the car, to its wind resistance profile, the engine technology and the speed at which it is driven. It is likely that the vehicles in this contest will be much lighter than the 2727-kg GMC Yukon or the 1135-kg Toyota Corolla. As we have seen in the aircraft industry, there is a tendency to move to lighter material such as carbon fiber due to the strength to weight ratio. Costs of this material are decreasing.

Strangely absent from the X prize list are the major automotive companies, although GM actually produced a concept car in 1992 called the Ultralite, with a carbon fiber frame – total vehicle weight of 636-kg, top speed of 135 mph and 88 miles per US gallon. Volkswagen has the L1, which uses 1 liter of diesel per 100 km or 270 mpg. GM’s subsidiary Opel developed the Eco-Speedster, whose top speed is 155 mph and gives 108 mpg. In North America, perhaps the largest impediment to production of these cars is the high profitability of big vehicles, the low return on small efficient cars and the lack of understanding of how precarious our energy position is.

 eco-speedster.jpg

 A private foundation is trying to stimulate the production of good mileage vehicles in North America. We know that it is possible to do so. We see the beginning of an unprecedented energy problem. We know that GM doesn’t want to raise the “CAFE” requirements. It clear that Canada’s “New” government will not set independent higher fuel standards from the US. The federal government did introduce a vehicle subsidy program that was politically skewed, but a small start. Here in NB, Shawn Graham cut the 3.8-cent gas tax to get elected, which was exactly the worst thing he could have done.

There are a number of things that could be done to get us ready for high prices and the eventual rationing of gas. Yes, rationing of gas is coming. High mileage diesels are available in Europe but few are on sale here. Does GM determine our energy policy? Should we institute a carbon tax on fuel to help fund subsidies on the purchase of good mileage vehicles? Maybe we could lower the speed limits on highways. Perhaps the annual vehicle registration fee could have an aggressive carrot and stick approach. There are so many ways we can adjust to extreme prices that are inevitable, but we haven’t seen much interest from the very people we elected only a short time ago.

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One comment

  1. greendweller · December 9, 2007

    Check out http://www.fueleconomy.gov/ if you haven’t already. The US EPA just recalculated their fuel economy estimates to reflect rising highway speeds and a more accurate climate. It’s depressing, but underscores the need for your 100mpg car. It’s probably easier than convincing millions of drivers to stop going 80mph on the highways.

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