LOS ANGELES – The biggest question behind one lawmaker’s new push for a 100-mpg (2.4 L/100 km) gasoline vehicle isn’t about whether it can be built, technology experts say, but whether consumers will want it.
Introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Dan Lungren of California, the Excellence in Energy Efficiency Act, otherwise known as H.R. 3872, calls for awarding $1 billion to the first U.S.-based company that develops and then sells at least 60,000 gasoline-powered midsize vehicles that reach 100 mpg.
Lungren, a Republican, tells WardsAuto his bill is an alternative to the Obama Admin.’s push for more electric vehicles. That program, he says, is too costly for the average consumer, even after government rebates.
EVs may indeed be fuel-efficient, but they don’t offer the other amenities provided by many traditional rides, Lungren says.
Even though the current class of EVs and hybrids offer “tremendous mileage, considering the range and space limits with these cars,” the public’s “not going to buy them,” he says. “While I applaud the ongoing effort to develop alternate energy, I’m trying to be more practical.”
WardsAuto reported in November that alternate-fuel vehicles claim about 2.5% of the total U.S. auto market.
Another nationwide study by clean-technology analyst Pike Research shows strong consumer interest in purchasing plug-in hybrids dipped from 48% of those surveyed in 2009 to 40% last year.
“Critics say that somehow I’m trying to undermine alternative energy,” Lungren says.
On the contrary, he says, the billion-dollar prize taps into America’s tradition of offering rewards for accomplishments, such as the $25,000 Orteig Prize for aviation in 1927 awarded to Charles Lindbergh for his flight over the Atlantic. Before that, the Great Chicago Car Race in 1895 energized the county’s automotive ambitions and handed $2,000 to the winner.
More recently, the Progressive Auto Insurance X-Prize awarded a total of $10 million to the winners of a contest to build a high-efficiency, low-carbon-dioxide-emissions vehicle able to achieve 100 mpg or more.
“If people can’t do this, people won’t get the prize,” Lungren says. “We’re already spending large amounts of money supporting alternate-fuel resources.
“Solyndra comes to mind,” he says of the solar-cell manufacturer that went bankrupt last year after receiving a $535 million U.S. government loan. “Why not pay for an actual result?
“The American buying public isn’t stupid. The American buying public will buy a vehicle that gives them the comfort and mobility they’ve come to expect.”
That’s why Tom Murphy, an associate physics professor at the University of California, San Diego, believes a 100-mpg auto powered solely by a gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine can’t succeed.
“Technologically, we know what we need to do to get phenomenal mileage,” Murphy says. But, while American consumers generally say they want a car that gets 100 miles per gallon, the fish-like design he says is needed to reach that goal likely won’t reel in many sales.
“In the case of gas mileage and cars, it’s totally dominated by air resistance,” Murphy says.
Otherwise, a car that looks like a trout – with a low-profile head, an enlongated body where the driver and riders would sit in a line, and a tapered back end – would best fit Lungren’s specifications. Murphy adds it would look preposterous and be “a real pain to parallel park.”
There already are people “who are teasing their cars into reaching 100 mpg,” he says. But this is achieved by driving 30 mph (5 km/h), and he questions whether anyone would be willing to travel only at that rate.
Murphy, nonetheless, says Lungren’s 100-mpg goal “is an appealing thing and politically very smart.”
Robert Hutchinson, managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit think-tank dedicated to transitioning the U.S. away from fossil fuels, contends Lungren’s initiative isn’t smart at all.
Like Murphy, Hutchinson believes the auto industry already has the know-how to build a 100-mpg gasoline-powered car. But, he wonders, why anyone would still want to develop gas-only systems when there’s not yet a way to recover even some of the energy used in the combustion process?
Given America’s critical need for energy, “there’s no logic to it,” Hutchinson says. “No sane auto company would do that. Why would you waste your time?”
He also questions Lungren’s aims for 100 mpg whenalready has its XL1 concept diesel hybrid that reaches upwards of 300 mpg (0.8 L/100 km).
“Our conclusion is that (Lungren’s bill) is certainly under-targeted from where the goal should be,” says Hutchinson. “I think he’s underestimating American industry.”