Spoiled People & Golf Balls: Fuel Efficiency Past & Future

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If you want proof that human beings in the developed world are a spoiled bunch you need look no further than the history of fuel efficiency and actual gas mileage per vehicle in the U.S.

We tend to think that recent advances in fuel efficiency have led to us consuming less fuel per mile driven than in the past, but that isn't really the case. The average miles per gallon (mpg) achieved in America today is 27. When the Model T Ford was introduced in 1908, the car managed 21 mpg.

That's correct: In more than 100 years, American automobile fuel efficiency has improved by only 6 mpg.

The reason, according to research by Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Christopher Knittel published earlier this year in the American Economic Review, is simple. It is not that there haven't been advances in fuel efficiency over the last hundred years; it is that those advances have not been used to increase average mpg.

Rather, as fuel efficiency increases, we have demanded bigger and heavier, more powerful cars. This was especially true in the days before the 1973 "oil shock."

When the Middle Eastern OPEC countries' oil embargo caused fuel prices to take off in that year, the U.S. had managed to shrink fuel efficiency to only 12 mpg.

Since then, there has been a renewed focus on gas usage that has actually led to improvements in overall consumption numbers. The first Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations were passed in 1975, but the private sector was, in many ways, ahead of the government by that time.

The 1975 Honda Civic, for example, was already getting around 40 mpg. That combination of regulation and private sector innovation produced real change. By 1991, the average mpg in the U.S. had increased by over 50 percent to 16.9, and now stands at 27.

Still, according to Knittel, it could have been a lot better. From 1980 to 2006, the average gas mileage of cars sold in the U.S. increased by just over 15 percent. If you look at the actual power delivered per gallon of gas though, fuel efficiency increased by 60 percent over that time. The balance went to increased weight and power.

The techniques used to improve efficiency have been many and varied. Carburetors are a thing of the past. Almost every gasoline-powered vehicle now has a direct fuel injection system that, according to fueleconomy.gov, has produced the greatest efficiencies of any engine innovation, resulting in a 12 percent reduction in fuel usage.

Variable valve timing is also now fairly universal and reduces fuel consumption by around 5 percent. Advances in transmissions have also been beneficial. By limiting jerky gear changes, Continuously Variable Transmissions (CVTs) have produced up to 7 percent savings in gas usage.

These changes appear to be just the beginning. The increasing public acceptance of electric vehicles -- such as those made by Tesla, Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf -- will have a significant impact on fuel averages over the next few years.

There are infrastructure limits that could prove problematic for all electric vehicles, however, if the technology were to expand rapidly. An extensive network of charging stations would need to be installed and battery manufacturing capacity would have to be dramatically increased, for example. If electric vehicles became the norm the whole grid would have to be updated and electricity generation capacity would have to be increased.

It is more likely that increases in average efficiency will be driven by other factors in the coming years. Hybrid technology will be used more widely, as those batteries recharge themselves and costs begin to fall.

There are also several seemingly weird and wonderful innovations that could contribute. MIT researchers are working on using the "dimple design" of golf balls on car bodies to increase fuel efficiency.

The fact is that, given instability in oil producing countries and the increasing cost of fuel, drivers in the U.S. and elsewhere are likely to exhibit less spoiled and greedy behavior in the coming years.

We could soon all be driving around in hybrid vehicles that look like golf balls, and the resulting efficiencies will be used to actually increase average gas mileage, rather than to satisfy our desire for gadgets and ever greater power.

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