Between the debt-ceiling kerfuffle and Hurricane Irene, you may have missed two bits of summertime news that will be important for what we drive in the coming years.
First, President Barack Obama announced that the administration and automakers had reached a deal to double the fuel economy of our national fleet of cars starting in model year 2017 and reaching the goal by 2025. Right now, cars and light trucks — light trucks include what I call my “little old lady SUV” — get an average of 27 mpg. By 2025 those same vehicles are to average an impressive 54.5 mpg.
The second bit of news came a little later but was equally interesting. For the first time, companies that build “big rig” trucks, work vehicles like garbage trucks, and buses will also have to conform to efficiency standards. In model years 2014-2018, big rigs are to become 23 percent more efficient and work trucks and buses will be 9 percent more miserly.
In some ways, big rigs and buses are already quite efficient. It’s true you see them belch black emissions when they accelerate, but because they haul large payloads as they tootle down the road they pack in a lot of work per gallon of fuel consumed. My four-cylinder SUV gets pretty good gas mileage — in the upper 20s in terms of mpg — but when the only thing in it is me, it’s just not efficient in terms of pounds of payload. Still, truck and bus engineers will now be tasked with the challenge of making the behemoths of the streets and highways even more efficient than they currently are.
Most of us don’t make decisions about which big rig to purchase or what model of bus our city transit system should buy. But when it comes to personal vehicles, we have more and more options that both speak to the goal of efficiency and also to diversifying the type of energy we rely on for transportation.
Here’s just a sampler of what vehicle type you could purchase when next you’re on the market for a new car:
• Traditional hybrid cars like the standard Prius — these vehicles are powered by gasoline. You don’t plug them in for a charge, you just fill them up with gasoline (like your father’s Oldsmobile). The hybrids get much better mileage than many cars, but they are still 100 percent gasoline dependent.
• Newer hybrids like the Chevy Volt — this car runs for short distances on electricity alone. You plug it in while you sleep and it’s charged for you in the morning. Driving across town in the Volt is like owning an all-electric car. For many commuters, this has the appeal of economy because electricity is cheap compared to gasoline. If you want to go long distances, the vehicle starts automatically using gasoline for energy — so you can drive across a state or two by filling up.
• All-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf — this car is all electric, all the time. You “pour” energy into it by plugging it in for a charge, likely while you sleep. It has no tailpipe, which is pretty cool, although the power-plant that made the electricity the car runs on creates emissions if it’s powered by fossil fuels.
• Natural gas vehicles like one type of the Honda Civic — this ever-popular car can be purchased with a motor that runs on natural gas. Natural gas burns quite cleanly. You can recharge the vehicle with compressed natural gas at your home. If that sounds exotic, you may have already been in a natural gas vehicle; some airport shuttle buses and urban taxis are powered in this fashion.
In short, diverse types of vehicles are now coming into their own. For those of us who love motors and engines, it’s a great time to be alive. And although I hope to drive my plain-vanilla four-cylinder SUV for another 10 years, I also allow myself to daydream of some new vehicle, much more efficient than what I grew up with and perhaps powered by natural gas or electricity.
I’m thinking of bright yellow, maybe with red flames painted on the sides.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. Peters can be reached at email@example.com.