Gas prices change but cars don't. What gives?
February 18, 2008 9:19 AM   Subscribe

Gas has been getting more and more expensive, yet cars have not been getting more fuel efficient. Why not?

So in case you haven't heard, gas is more expensive than it used to be. If you don't believe me, look at this chart. In the first eight months of 2005, we saw higher prices than ever before, and also more volatility than ever before. Prices were bouncing all over the place, and nobody knew what to expect for the future. Then Katrina and Rita kicked gas prices into the stratosphere, and I remember the following (please correct me if I'm wrong):
  • Surveys showed that people were no longer uncertain about whether high gas prices were here to stay; they were.
  • News articles quoted industry experts saying that car manufacturers were going to build more fuel-efficient cars.
  • Car advertisements, which used to say "Buy the new Canyonero!" now said "Buy the new 14 mpg Canyonero!". As if they were hoping customers who hadn't thought about fuel efficiency since 1991 would forget that 14 mpg is not good. Eventually, of course, customers would catch on, and these mpg-touting ads would have to be backed by an actual fuel-efficient car. Or so I thought.
Two and a half years later, I have heard no news of the new generation of fuel-efficient cars, either on the market or in the pipeline (I'm not counting the Chevrolet Volt, which is a niche product that may or may not ever be for sale). In automotive engineering, there is a tradeoff between horsepower and fuel efficiency. As technology advances, carmakers can choose to add mpg or add horsepower, or add a little to each. Or, I suppose (again, correct me if I'm wrong), they could choose to take away horsepower and add a whole bunch of miles per gallon.

Given the increase in gas prices, you'd think fuel efficiency would be getting the attention in new car designs. But it seems like new cars have continued to emphasize horsepower. The 2009 redesigned Toyota Corolla is advertised as more powerful and more fuel efficient, but the fuel efficiency gains are slight. The 2008 redesigned Honda Accord is actually less fuel efficient than its predecessor.

I know it takes a few years to design and build a new car. Where is the new generation of fuel-efficient cars? Is it going to exist? Are there any new cars in manufacturers' pipelines that will cater to the segment of the cutomer base that doesn't care about horsepower too much, but wants a car that's really good on gas, and doesn't want to pay $5,000 extra for a hybrid? If so, when will I be able to buy one?
posted by Dec One to Travel & Transportation (41 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There are a number of hybrids coming out, especially in luxury SUVs to make the on-par with normal cars in terms of fuel efficiency. Also, at leats in Canada, there have been a number of sub-compacts introduced which are a lot more efficient due just to having less mass to move around. Finally, there's the SMART car which takes sub-compact to a whole new level.

But the other answer is that fuel prices change faster than car designs.
posted by GuyZero at 9:28 AM on February 18, 2008

It takes more than "a few years". Styling may only take a year or two, but the underpinnings can have a five to eight-year lead time. And most people buy the upgrade when purchasing a new car, which puts no downward force whatsoever on the car companies to make smaller-displacement, more efficient engines.
posted by notsnot at 9:29 AM on February 18, 2008

Smart Cars seem to meet your requirements, and the demand for them (at least where I live where a dealership just opened) has been huge.
posted by drezdn at 9:32 AM on February 18, 2008

I think that when the US market finally sees sub-compacts like the Smart car, they are going to fall in love with them, not just because of fuel economy but styling, too. In Europe, sub-compacts are everywhere, but the cost of fuel is also high.

It's a mental trick, too. People in the US tend to not budget, so they don't really watch the price of gas. They just know they have to fill up and that it sucks because of the high costs, but they rarely look at the tally at the end of the month ("whoa, I spent $800, zomg!") and reference it with past information ("damn, i only spend $400 a month a year ago, that's like $400 extra we are spending, im gonna go get a more fuel efficient car now!").

As gas creeps higher, demand will keep tugging at more efficient cars. If gas were $10 a gallon, we wouldn't see a SUV anywhere.
posted by bprater at 9:39 AM on February 18, 2008

I, too, have given this a lot of thought.. In my tiny city here in Texas, gas prices are a huge buzz day after day, but what these people do when they go to shop for a vehicle? They buy bigass pickups and SUVs! In my city of 25,000, there are sparkling new Dodge Rams and Ford Expeditions, but I have yet to see a hybrid car anywhere. This tells me there has never been any real paradigm shift in purchasing priorities, and marketing probably recognizes that, though I'm sure there is the start of a slow change in affluent suburbs.

The other problem I see is that the buyers of a a fuel-efficient vehicle will generally be frugal, spendthrift shoppers -- not the type of people who will bite on the bloated $25-35K price tags carried on today's vehicles. I'm fairly frugal and always head straight to the used car market for a nice $12K vehicle, so as I see it, Detroit is probably not interested in designing anything for me.

I'm not sure if this is what you want since it's just anecdote, but that's my $0.02.
posted by crapmatic at 9:41 AM on February 18, 2008

Congratulations on a post that will get 100 answers and 100 disagreements.

It's only been in the last 18 months or so that buyers have really begun to list MPG as a primary concern. Additionally, historically "safety" has meant "weight", and safety has been a higher priority than MPG. I've got a friend with a 71 Datsun that gets fuel mileage on par with a Prius...but which car would you rather wreck at 50 miles an hour?

Additionally, definitions of "green" and "eco friendly" aren't governed. Catalytic converters, for example, reduce some greenhouse gasses. They also cut efficiency by 5-20 percent. There is a debate over the benefits of mpg/volume versus emissions/volume...if you have to spend .8 units of gas to go as far w/o a converter and 1.0 units to go the same distance w/ a converter but you've saved 10% greenhouse emissions, logically the increased mpg is more environmentally friendly.

Consider the case of diesel. The only two companies making passenger diesel cars in the US are GERMAN. Diesels are my pet cause, so I won't get started, but I can say that I'd rather drive a $5,000 1996 VW Jetta and get 55 mpg on diesel than I would spend $20,000 on an 07 Prius and get 50...and have to deal with gasoline and batteries.

Consider cellulasic ethanol---yielding rediculous amounts of gasoline from switchgrass is on the horizon, BUT there's too many billions tied up in oil wells and other research.

Hydrogen isn't the answer...won't be for a long time. Don't get me started.

Why aren't superchargers and turbos the defacto standard? More power AND gas mileage? Sign me up. Why aren't there diesel hybrids?

Why don't more people take public transportation? Why don't more people ride bikes? Why don't more people get 5 friends together and buy 1 car and split the gas and carpool? Why does the Prius only get 10mpg better than the Yaris/Echo for an extra $8,000? Why do Americans who live on flatlands drive honking SUV's?

The answer is that not enough people care about any one thing. It costs a billion (with a B) dollars to spec a new model for a company. Why build a car that 15,000 people nationwide like the idea of, but probably can't afford, when you can build a car that 50,000 people like well enough? Marketing works on many levels---thousands believe the Prius is the Answer, because Toyota marketing has told them so. We have not, as a society, generated the momentum required for systemic change...and realistically I don't see us doing it any time soon.
posted by TomMelee at 9:41 AM on February 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

Something like a Camry does have options though. The 2.4L I4 engine gets 21/31 mpg with 158 hp, while the 3.3L V6 gets 19/28 mpg with 268 hp.

That's actually a pretty crummy trade-off, all things considered.
posted by smackfu at 9:43 AM on February 18, 2008

Automakers respond to the market. The market (that is, you and me and everyone else buying cars) has been telling them they need to produce a lot of big SUVs and pickup trucks. Even now, the market has not made a huge shift away from those kinds of vehicles, presumably because people like them and want them -- they certainly could buy something more fuel-efficient if they wanted to, but they don't do that in huge numbers. One reason for this is that gasoline is not actually much more expensive than in the past if you take inflation into account (which your chart does not). Here's a chart showing the inflation-adjusted price of gasoline since 1918. You can see that gasoline is still cheaper than it was in 1918 on that basis, and has just barely gone past the subsequent peak in 1981.

In any case, the customer does in fact have a choice -- we don't need to develop a lot of new high-MPG models, because they already exist. If customers start flocking to them all of a sudden, you can bet that carmakers will meet that demand. And if they pretty much stop buying low-MPG models, you can bet those will no longer be produced.
posted by beagle at 9:46 AM on February 18, 2008

And why do I remember ads from the 1970s with cars getting 45 mpg?
posted by Aquaman at 9:46 AM on February 18, 2008

I suppose another argument is that the revealed preferences of car buyers shows that gas prices aren't actually that high, compared to other things people spend money on. Yeah, people are paying more attention, and are buying somewhat more fuel efficient cars, but consumers are still hitting 70+ mph on the highways, and, last summer, when prices were around $3.30, I saw some schmoe sitting in his convertible in the parking lot, with the top down and the AC blasting. I think he was waiting for his wife who was heading into the supermarket.

Here's an interesting graph that shows the cost of gasoline compared to various measures of purchasing power. We're paying a lot more for gas than we were at any other time, especially compared to the golden age of the American gas guzzler in the 1950s, but we're also buttloads richer, so the percentage of income we're spending on fuel isn't nearly at a historic high.
posted by chengjih at 9:46 AM on February 18, 2008

There's only so far you can go with fuel efficiency, the real research money is in alternate fuels - no matter how efficient you make your cars, eventually we will run out of oil.

Another thing you have to factor in is that a lot of consumers just don't care about fuel efficiency. If they did they'd all drive SMART cars and hatchbacks - there wouldn't be an SUV or sports car in sight.

Fuel in the US isn't nearly expensive enough yet, in the UK its about $8 per gallon, even at that price there's plenty of people driving their kids to school in their 4x4s.

At the end of the day, for most people, there are vehicles available that are more fuel efficient than what they currently drive.
posted by missmagenta at 9:57 AM on February 18, 2008

Those Cato graphs posted by chengjih are interesting, showing that gas is still only half as expensive as it was in 1950 relative to after-tax family earnings. During that same period, the number of miles the average family drives has increased greatly, and the MPG of the average vehicle has improved, so families have been able to drive a lot more miles for less money. This has driven big changes in where people live, relative to where they work. If the cost of gas continues to increase, it probably won't drive people to living closer to where they work, but it probably will drive greater average fuel economy in the fleet we drive.
posted by beagle at 9:59 AM on February 18, 2008

Having just been to the Chicago Auto Show yesterday, I can attest to the fact that car companies are marketing the hell out of hybrids. Chevy had some teensy-tiny concept cars. VW also had a flashy display for their diesel-powered car.
posted by desjardins at 10:02 AM on February 18, 2008

And why do I remember ads from the 1970s with cars getting 45 mpg?

Late 1970's Tercel: "Gas mileage was an impressive 36 city, 48 highway with the four-speed manual ... The Tercel was sprightly to 50 mph or so." We're talking 1.5L engine with 62 horsepower here.

I'm not sure how comparable the numbers are, since a modern Yaris with a 1.5L engine is only getting 29/36 mpg now (but 106 hp.) I know most numbers recently got adjusted down due to new calculations... perhaps that has happened in the past too?
posted by smackfu at 10:04 AM on February 18, 2008

The premise of the question is false. As mandated by CAFE, average fuel efficiency has fairly consistently gone up each year since the mid-70's.
posted by designbot at 10:13 AM on February 18, 2008

Higher energy cost is not the direct cause of the production of more fuel-efficient vehicles, consumer demand (which is affected by energy cost) is. There are some pretty darn fuel-efficient vehicles already available out there. When there's a significant change in the number of people buying these instead of SUV's, then the production plans will change.
posted by winston at 10:14 AM on February 18, 2008

A lot of good points already made.

- Engine power is not the prime determinant of fuel efficiency. Vehicle weight and aerodynamics are more important (consider the example of the Camry with two engine options above). Aerodynamics do keep getting marginally better, although after a certain point, improvements are going to get very expensive. Weight is a bigger problem because of mandatory or desirable safety improvements, conveniences, etc. Consider that a VW Rabbit today weighs about double what the original Rabbit weighed, and the fact that it gets anywhere near the same MPG is fairly impressive.

- Engine tuning is a bit of a black art. You say "As technology advances, carmakers can choose to add mpg or add horsepower, or add a little to each. Or, I suppose (again, correct me if I'm wrong), they could choose to take away horsepower and add a whole bunch of miles per gallon." It ain't necessarily so. Car companies design new engines even less often than they do new cars; they'll take an existing design and bore it/stroke it, tweak it, etc, for years. IIRC, the engine in today's Land Rover uses the same block as the one that was in my parents' Buick Skylark when they went on their honeymoon in the early 60s. Some improvements in engine efficiency may be possible, but too expensive for a certain price-point. Or may come with other undesirable consequences (reduced engine life, increased noise, etc).

- Automakers respond to the markets. While there are a number of high-mileage cars, they're all very small, of course, and mostly bare-bones. There may simply not be the market for a bigger car that makes the compromises necessary to get higher mileage. And for that matter, putting an underpowered engine in a car may defeat the purpose, by forcing drivers to keep their feet on the gas more.

- In historic terms, gas is not that expensive, so people really don't have a very strong motivation to be more efficient. Adjusted for inflation, it still costs less than it did in 1979 (Google "inflation-adjusted gasoline prices"). Hell, a big house is very expensive to heat/cool, but house sizes in the USA keep going up—anything under 2000 sqft is considered "small" these days. In terms of your monthly budget, your marginal costs for heating/cooling a McMansion compared to a more compact home could well be greater than your marginal costs for running a Family Truckster compared to a Prius.

- Automakers are conservative or timid. Not one of them currently sells a plugin hybrid or serial hybrid. Only Mazda sells a car with a non-reciprocating ICE (and that's a boutique item that's not notably efficient), even though there are a number of other engine designs out there that might be improvements.
posted by adamrice at 10:21 AM on February 18, 2008

Oh yeah, another thing: In 2007 (?), the EPA revised how it calculates mileage to be more pessimistic.
posted by adamrice at 10:22 AM on February 18, 2008

My thought is that people haven't yet changed their buying habits significantly. The manufacturers change along with demand, and if people are still willing to buy the SUVs and whatnot, the manufacturers will still make them.

Gasoline is seen as an inelastic good. People buy it no matter the price. And regardless of the price, most people still see buying a new car as a greater expense than paying for more gas for their less fuel-efficient car.

People with the money to buy a new car don't worry too much about gas prices, perhaps?
posted by that girl at 10:25 AM on February 18, 2008

The price of gas hasn't risen so far as to make it economically compelling to trade in an old car that works for a newer one that gets lower gas mileage. If someone has a car that works and is paid off, then buying a new car would cost them more per month (in car payments) than they would save in reduced cost of gas.

It's cheaper for them to keep using the car they have.
posted by Class Goat at 10:30 AM on February 18, 2008

The premise of the question is false. As mandated by CAFE, average fuel efficiency has fairly consistently gone up each year since the mid-70's.

No, according to your own link it went up until 1981 and then stalled for 25 years.
posted by madmethods at 11:07 AM on February 18, 2008

Nth'ing what everybody else said, just consider that this is a very, very, very large ship that will change course very, very slowly. The long-term trend is towards fuel efficiency but it will take a while for the technology, the production, the new car sales, the used car sales, and so on to happen. Keep in mind that pre-Katrina gas was dirt cheap and the whole global warming/peak oil thing was not as embedding in the societal mental state as it is now. People are, I suspect, only beginning to appreciate that circa $3/gallon gasoline is, for the moment, "normal" and not some weird temporary high. The average person probably has no real concept of the larger forces at work that will make driving ever more expensive over time.

There are some subtle trends visible. First, values of large used SUVs have crashed. People are, as a result, crazily upside-down on loans for Explorers, Yukons, and so on. Second, more cars with hybrid motors, such as the Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Malibu, are entering the market. Third, models with multiple engine choices (I-4 and V-6, for example) are seeing increased sales of the smaller engine. Finally, smaller cars are (slowly) getting more popular. Note, for example, the success of the Scion and Smart lines in the US. Stuff like this will quietly continue. GM, in fact, just announced that they are abandoning development of their new generation V-8 engine.

As an aside, would you like to know the hottest trend in bicycles? Commuting and city bikes. Seriously.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 11:09 AM on February 18, 2008

Does anybody happen to have a chart that cross-references yearly model sales with economy, to create a per-year snapshot of average mpg?

I ask because intuitively it seems as though the auto-makers who are prospering of late are those with a wide variety of reasonably efficient cars, and those that are failing are the same ones that were relying on pick-ups and SUVs.

As such, it's possible that the base contention of this question is wrong, and that people are, in fact, moving to significantly more fuel efficient vehicles.
posted by mosch at 11:19 AM on February 18, 2008

The price of gas hasn't risen so far as to make it economically compelling to trade in an old car that works for a newer one that gets lower gas mileage

That is a good point and one of the reasons whythe ship turns around very slowly, in LastOf's imagery.

I have looked at trading in one or both of my paid-for cars for a Prius or the like. Between the 2 cars, my wife and I drive upward of 35,000 miles, and we average 26 miles per gallon. On a Prius, optimistically we'd get 45. Our savings at $3 per gallon would be $1700 per year, which is hardly enough to justify spending $50,000 or so on two Priuses. Or Prii, whatever the plural is. Now, maybe, in a few years, when my current cars pass the 100,000 mark, I might do it. At that point, the equation is: Is it worth spending an extra $6,000 or so on hybrids (versus the cost of equivalent non-hybrids), and save $1700 per year. That becomes reasonable, a 3.5-year payback. But, note that if we were driving only 17,500 miles per year, it would be a 7-year payback, which wouldn't get me too excited.
posted by beagle at 11:28 AM on February 18, 2008

Does anybody happen to have a chart that cross-references yearly model sales with economy, to create a per-year snapshot of average mpg?

I think what you're looking for is here, scroll to near bottom of page for the "achieved" graph.

What it basically shows is that because CAFE standards did not budget, achieved MPG did not budge, and actually declined as SUVs came into the mix.
posted by beagle at 11:35 AM on February 18, 2008

not exactly relevant, dec one, but you might be interested in the film Who Killed the Electric Car.
posted by gcat at 12:00 PM on February 18, 2008

It's interesting to look across the ocean. Current petrol price in the UK is 103.9p / l, or $7.72 per gallon. The rest of Europe is similarly high-priced, if a bit lower. Yet they don't have significantly better gas mileage for a given car, even brands that are only sold in Europe. Instead, people buy smaller cars. This implies it's not as easy as suggested to just increase the fuel mileage to meet people's desires.
posted by smackfu at 12:04 PM on February 18, 2008

TomMelee writes "Why aren't superchargers and turbos the defacto standard? More power AND gas mileage? "

You need to buy high octane gas. Forced injection is unpopular amongst all but the performance set for that reason. Dodge offered turbo charged engines (the common block 2.2/2.5) in practically every FWD vehicle they made (even the Caravan) in the late 80s for emission reasons but dropped them as soon as they could because people would rather have equivalent power in a V6 on cheap gas. Even though the L4 was cheaper to run because of better mileage.

Dasein writes "(a 1997 Jeep Grand Cherokee goes 0-60 as fast as a 1978 Corvette)"

This speaks more to the crappy performance of the '78 'Vette than the Jeep. I've ridden in a '69 4DR Sattelitte that would wax both of them to 60 or 100.
posted by Mitheral at 12:35 PM on February 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

No, according to your own link it went up until 1981 and then stalled for 25 years.

Depends whether you're looking at the total fleet or passenger cars, I suppose. Passenger cars have shown slow but steady progress, from 19.9 MPG in 1978 to 25.9 MPG in 1981 to 31.3 MPG in 2007. Light trucks have progressed more slowly.

The overall average is brought down because "light trucks" (which includes SUV's) have gone from 10% of overall sales in 1979 to 50% today.
posted by designbot at 12:36 PM on February 18, 2008

I don't know if most people think it out this way, but the bottom line is that if economizing is your highest priority, there's better ways to do this at present than an alternative energy vehicle.

This includes the usual stuff like telecommuting more, moving closer to where you work, public transportation, walking/cycling etc — but even leaving all that aside, right now, most people are probably economizing more by buying and driving a used compact or subcompact car with reasonable average gas mileage (say, 25-30mpg) than you are buying a more expensive fancy energy car that averages much higher (say, 45-50mpg).

For example: pick the Yaris vs the Prius. At an average 32mpg the Yaris has a gas cost per mile about $.09 for gas at $3/gallon. If you give the prius an average of 50mpg, it's costing you $.06 per mile for gas. So, let's say a $.03 per mile difference -- how many miles do you have to drive to make up the $10,000 difference? Over 300,000. So, over the lifetime of the vehicle, you may break even, if you didn't finance that $10,000.

Now, pick something like a 3-5 year old used vehicle, maybe a 2004 Echo, maybe even a 2002 Prizm. Both of those get an average of 30mpg (or better), so at $3.00/gallon, your cpm is still $.10 (or better). And in many markets you can get these vehicles for half what you can buy a new Yaris, so you've spent thousands less on the car. Sure, these vehicles will likely have a shorter lifetime than a new one, but their monthly gas costs won't be more expensive. Barring serious maintenance issues, total monthly operationg costs will be on par — probably less if the car was financed.

If you drive a lot, this changes. But we're talking about something like 3600+ miles monthly for the Yaris/Prius example above. 120 miles every day. I realize some people do this, and those people should have the best gas mileage possible in order to economize. But most people don't.

And obviously, anybody is better off driving a new Prius over a new pickup/suv when it comes to gas and operation costs, financed or not. If your choice is between new cars in the 20,000+ range, though, economizing is almost certainly not a real issue for you. This is what a lot of people in the thread mean by the fact that many Americans are rich and can afford not to care.

Now, the more gas goes up, the more this could be different. If gas jumped to $6.00 a gallon, then the Prius/Yaris example I mentioned above becomes somewhat different. Drive more than 1800 miles a month (60 miles per day) at that cost and the Prius is more economical even if you have to finance an additional $10,000 to buy it. At %7, anyway.

But for the moment, even with fuel costs as they are, alternative energy vehicles are still a luxury good, not an economy choice.
posted by weston at 1:00 PM on February 18, 2008

It costs me three dollars to move four thousand pounds of steel 20 miles. Even if it costs me three fifty, four, or even six dollars, I'm getting a hell of a bargain. Fuel efficiency often receives lip service, but is usually ignored for the pragmatic necessity of having to haul around crap: children, dogs, and lumber.
posted by jenkinsEar at 1:13 PM on February 18, 2008

JenkinsEar, I don't disagree with you...BUT---your car wasn't free. Cost of operation = more than the cost of gasoline.
posted by TomMelee at 2:04 PM on February 18, 2008

The price of gas hasn't risen so far as to make it economically compelling to trade in an old car that works for a newer one that gets lower gas mileage. If someone has a car that works and is paid off, then buying a new car would cost them more per month (in car payments) than they would save in reduced cost of gas.

And the world will probably continue to work this way, to some extent, as a new vehicle has a pretty high energy content, and other forms of energy have risen along with petroleum (though some to a lesser extent).
posted by Kwantsar at 2:10 PM on February 18, 2008

People will pay higher gas prices because it's a consumable. People will not pay higher car prices because it's a fixed asset. Higher fuel efficiency requires higher priced cars. Most people don't really understand how much their gas mileage is costing them.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:10 PM on February 18, 2008

Once the military decides to go with an alternatively-powered vehicle (heck, they may have already mapped it out), the strategic importance of that shift will wag the tail of a heck of a lot of other markets.

Which is probably why the R&D money is going that direction right now--be the guy with the patent on the process to fuel the next armada, and you're going to be the next goog. In that context, why work on tweaking a machine with a known expiration date? And a machine for which the patents were filed eons ago, and not by you?
posted by garfy3 at 2:21 PM on February 18, 2008

perhaps I'm the only one willing to break out the tinfoil hat, but it seems to me that this question has a quite simple answer - there is no money in making more fuel efficient cars. The costs of researching and developing a more efficient internal combustion engine are prohibitive, especially when (as I suspect, tinfoil-hat alert) the large oil companies have back-office, shady dealings with the major car manufacturers to prevent this very kind of research.

When you think about it, we're discussing an industry (big oil) that is making record profits in the double-digit billions, every year. Compared to an industry (automotive) that is struggling to make profit at all (unless you're toyota). So when big oil can guarantee it's double-digit billions by spending a single digit billion in payoffs/research quashing, where's the incentive for the automotive industry to improvise?

I'm not saying that there's a car that runs on water out there ("It runs on water, man!) but I very much suspect that the reason we are still utilizing the same basic engine design as was developed and used over 100 years ago isn't because they got it right the first time.
posted by namewithoutwords at 4:03 PM on February 18, 2008

The World Famous: What makes you think this is happening?

What makes you think it isn't? Can you name any other technology that has seen as little advancement in the past 100 years as the internal combustion engine? According to Ford's site, the Model T got anywhere from 13 to 21 mpg. Granted, we've doubled that in 100 years, but even taking that into consideration the technology has been staggeringly slow to develop. And unless someone can come up with a better reason, I'm going to look to the economics of the situation. When you've got an industry with a stranglehold on supply of a resource (big oil) they are going to do whatever they can to ensure dependence on that supply. Preventing the biggest consumer of your product from reducing it's dependence on your product only makes sound business sense.

Again, I realize this is all very conspiracy-theoryish. But until an engineer/expert on the internal combustion engine and it's development chimes in and informs me/us all differently, I'm sticking with my theory of supression and economics.
posted by namewithoutwords at 5:04 PM on February 18, 2008

Internal combustion has had 100 years of optimization. Competitors have not. This means there is lots of trouble getting any of them to a usable state. Look at the rotary engine. It works, and it has positives, but it has negatives, and they aren't the negatives people are used to, so there's no incentive for it to catch on.

Also, we did invent the jet, and that beats the fuck out of the internal combustion engine.
posted by smackfu at 5:19 PM on February 18, 2008

According to the canadian model t collectors site, the model T generated about 22 horsepower, and had a weight of about 1200 pounds. This engine got 12 miles to the gallon.

I'd say that pushing a four to six thousand pound object with a good 200 horses at double or triple these MPG's qualifies as a significant- perhaps exponential- improvement.

I don't think you need to invoke back-room deals to account for the current situation- they would have to be ENORMOUS to get the car companies to act against their best interests (to sell more cars). If a car company could create a car that was radically better, they could dominate the market. The bribe that this would take to suppress it would certainly show up on the balance sheets of these publically traded companies- not to mention the publically traded companies overseas.
posted by jenkinsEar at 6:38 PM on February 18, 2008

Adding to what World Famous is saying, there's also been a huge amount of change in terms of how reliable modern ICEs are compared to their predecessors. Technological change doesn't necessarily have to show up in only one metric, fuel economy, but appears in reliability, emissions, starting the engine in cold weather, power to move a vehicle that canschlepp a Model T in the back with better gas mileage (plus reliability, plus emissions, and so on).

Arguably, gas has been historically cheap relative to other things car buyers were interested in, such as reliability and power, so that car companies spent more effort in improving those qualities, rather than fuel economy. Given buck a gallon gas, wouldn't rather have Ford figure out how to reliably get your car started in the dead of winter and not break down while it's pulling a trailer?
posted by chengjih at 6:44 PM on February 18, 2008

For what it's worth, there's a decent used-Prius market in the SF Bay Area. When I looked at it back in October, the original US Priuses were around $9k. Sure, not as cheap as an old Accord, but it's not a $25k new hybrid or $1-5k used car choice - there's a middle ground.

I've spent a bit of time thinking about hybrids and about fast american muscle cars. I'd just like to say that most cars sold in the US are overpowered when you're thinking about a basic people mover. And there's a lot of power and feature creep in models. My early 90s Accord was only offered as a 4 cylinder at 125hp - 130hp, the original Accords were 75hp.

The current crop are 166hp (4 cylinder) and 244hp (6 cylinder).

Engine efficiency technology has certainly advanced, but when you're making a car go from 75hp to 268 hp (with roughly the same engine displacement and a naturally aspirated engine) you're going to be hard-pressed to make great gains in fuel efficiency.

Long story short - if we went from 100+hp cars back to 50-75 hp cars with today's technology, we could have driveable high-efficiency vehicles with no new breakthroughs. When gas gets expensive enough, or people become poor enough, this may happen. It's what happened in the mid-70s - suddenly seemly underpowered cars like the Toyotas and Hondas became very popular, and the US automakers switched, for a while, to making smaller and more efficient cars.
posted by zippy at 11:20 PM on February 18, 2008

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