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A Tale of Two Cars

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One of our family’s environmental sins (admittedly, we have a few) is that we are a two-car household. Granted, we don’t drive either car very much, but our work and child-related schedules are just off-kilter enough to make having an extra car an important convenience.

I’ve long been fascinated by the difference in the fuel economy performance of our cars. Our main car is a 2005 Ford Focus station wagon. It is what passed for a “green” vehicle when we bought it new – a partial zero-emission vehicle (meaning it creates virtually no health-threatening air pollution) with pretty good fuel economy for its class. 

Our other car, however, is a 1993 Honda Civic – a firecracker of a vehicle that gets nearly twice the fuel economy of the Focus, easily cracking 40 mpg on long highway journeys. The Civic is smaller than the Focus, which helps. But both are four-speed, manual transmission cars. And if anything, the Civic has better acceleration. One would think that the 12 years between the construction of our two vehicles – a time period that began before the launch of the World Wide Web and ended after the development of the smartphone – would have resulted in some technological advances that would enable the Focus to close the gap.

The fact is, though, that for roughly two decades – from the late 1980s to the late 2000s – the fuel economy performance of vehicles stagnated and even declined. Automakers had plenty of technologies on the shelf that could make vehicles use less energy – a 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that – but they simply chose not to use them.

Now, fuel economy technologies are flooding into American vehicles. Look no further than the annual American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) Greener Cars list for evidence. One might expect this year’s hottest new green vehicles – the electric Nissan LEAF and plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt – to rank highly on the list, and they do. So too would one expect green standouts of the past such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic hybrid to earn laurels, and they do.

What is somewhat surprising, though, is the preponderance of extremely fuel efficient conventional gasoline vehicles on the list – the heirs to our valiant but rusting '93 Civic.  Indeed, six of the top 12 vehicles in the survey were conventional gasoline vehicles; four of which achieve greater than 40 miles per gallon on the highway. More broadly, the EPAestimates that the vehicles sold in 2009 were the most fuel-efficient on average in American history. 

There is no single factor driving the resurgence in fuel economy innovation by automakers. Memories of the last oil price shock in 2008, coupled with the recent economic crisis, have certainly put American consumers in a more frugal mood. But automakers are also being spurred to innovation by the federal Clean Cars Program, which will require vehicles to achieve average fuel economy of 34 miles per gallon by model year 2016.

The rise of the highly efficient gasoline powered vehicle shows, yet again, that while whiz-bang new technologies are exciting – and will certainly be needed to deal with America’s urgent environmental problems – there is a lot of progress that can be made with tools already on the shelf. All it takes is the motivation and incentive to get up off the darned couch and fetch the toolbox.