Paying Through the Hose

August 7, 2008 at 9:00 am Leave a comment

With current gas prices flirting with the $4 mark, more Americans are seeking ways to reduce their fuel costs. However, in spite of the rising fuel prices, the sales of more economical vehicles have only risen slightly. Based on the most recent data available, the average US passenger car fuel economy is 22.4 MPG. In stark comparison, the average fuel economy of the average passenger car driven by our European neighbors is 38 MPG.

However, perhaps not so surprising is that American drivers averaged 43 percent more miles, racking up 13,000 per annum versus the 9,200 averaged by Europeans each year. That means while the average US driver will use 580 gallons of fuel each year, compared to 242 overseas, nearly 1 1/2 times more. Taking into consideration that fuel in the States is currently less than half the price of that in Europe ($3.88 per gallon vs. $8.52 per gallon), US drivers are still spending nearly $200 a year more to drive.

The blame can be pinned on both the automobile manufacturers as well as the American consumers. The better fuel economy of European cars is due in part to the public being more amenable to smaller cars with less horsepower. A majority of the automobile manufacturers remain unconvinced that most of the US car-buying public is ready to purchase a 1.4 liter hatchbacks. Though Honda’s Fit and Toyota’s Yaris are the two companies current hot sellers, this is not necessarily a result of Americans buying more fuel efficient cars as much as them buying fewer non-efficient vehicles.

So what makes the average US car-buyer so reluctant to accept more fuel efficient passenger vehicles? It’s the lack of bells and whistles. The weight of a car has a dramatic impact on its fuel economy, and in this respect the increasing weight of modern cars is part of the problem. Consumers and regulators demand that our vehicles should be safe, and rightly so, which means passive safety equipment like energy-absorbing crash structures, side impact intrusion bars, and a plethora of airbags. But all of this equipment adds weight and cuts MPG ratings. On top of that, air conditioning, in-car electronics such as DVD players and OnStar systems, and power-operated, heated, leather seats also pile on the pounds and shave off the gas mileage.

Body style is another factor that plays a critical role in affecting fuel consumption. Large, bluff-faced vehicles (e.g., SUVs) have a harder time pushing themselves through the air. As speed increases, the air resistance also increases, and at freeway cruising speeds, more than half the work the car has to do is to counteract drag. Unfortunately, car designers and their customers are often drawn to shapes that don’t blend well with fuel economy. While features such as wheel fairings and ‘fastbacks’ work to reuce drag, they are design features that are difficult to intergerate into body styles other than sport coupes, and are generally shunned by the US public.

However, the most popular body style in the US is the pickup truck and is far more more problematic, since the large, open flatbed behind a vertical rear cab window disrupts airflow over the top of the vehicle. The design of a pickup is optimized for traction on broken surfaces, rather than low rolling resistance. Yet less than 20% of all trucks produced ever see an unpaved road, let alone the rugged terrain for which they were originally designed.

Another way in which Europe has a fuel economy edge on the US is that diesel engines are much more acceptable to European car buyers, although again this might change, now that low sulfur diesel is available nationwide. This cleaner-burning diesel allows the use of better catalytic converters and particulate filters that have done much to dispel the image of big black clouds of exhaust fumes.

Yet there are indications that change is in the air. While the American consumer still seems to look down on small cars, as oil continues its climb, this prejudice may give way to necessity.

By briansrapier

[via Ars Technica]

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Entry filed under: Energy, Environment, Fuel Economy, Informational. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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