The auto—alternatives to oil

For our nation as a whole, economic, security and environmental problems can in large part be traced to over reliance on motor vehicle transportation. The relentless growth in vehicles and vehicles miles traveled continue to overwhelm efforts to reduce fuel consumption. Devices to control vehicle emissions deteriorate over time, adding to air pollution.

If we had maintained the effort toward energy independence first called for by President Gerald Ford in 1973, the global energy situation would be far less grim than that which we now face. Rather than adopt a sustainable energy system, we continued to pursue policies that increased fossil fuel consumption and overwhelmed the earth’s capacity to fix carbon dioxide. Faced with peak oil, our political leaders continue to talk in terms of expanding global oil supplies. By 2020, increased demand for oil could require an increase the size of five additional Saudi Arabias. Peak oil followers claim such increases are nowhere to be found.

With China now focused on developing an auto-centered transportation system, global oil demand will double if they match America’s reliance on auto transportation by the year 2030.

Demand for oil is now growing at a faster rate than supplies, and the long-term outlook for energy prices is up. On the bright side, increased prices could be a means to slow global warming and increase the use of energy efficiency and renewable energy.

A substantial demand for hybrid cars seems to be developing in response to higher gasoline prices. Hybrid sales in the U.S. are expected to exceed 90,000 this year. Toyota and Honda are expanding production; GM, Ford and Chrysler are introducing hybrid vehicles as well. The Toyota Prius and Honda Insight have double the fuel efficiency of the U.S. fleet. If hybrids came with the ability to recharge the batteries from the electric grid, reliance on gasoline would be further reduced.

While gasoline-electric vehicles are in the spotlight, diesel-powered vehicles could become even more popular. The interest in diesel engines is rising since the average fuel economy of trucks must increase from a fleet average of 20.7 today to 22.2 by 2007. Diesel engines get up to 30 percent better mileage than comparable gasoline engines. Volkswagen offers diesel engines in nearly all of its U.S. car models and has experienced a 46 percent increase in diesel sales through June of this year. Mercedes has introduced a diesel model, and Jeep Liberty will offer a diesel model as well. According to J.D. Power and Associates, diesel sales this year will exceed hybrid sales by a four to one margin. Much of the diesel sales are for large pickups and sport utility vehicles. However, as emission controls on diesel engines tighten, the price of diesel engines would rise while hybrid costs are expected to decline.

Energy independence is also increased when home grown renewable fuels such as ethanol and soy diesel displace gasoline and diesel fuels.

While the movement toward renewable fuels and increased efficiency in the transportation sector are encouraging, it is still far too small to address the twin problems of global warming and peak oil. We need a transportation system dramatically less reliant on the automobile, but the marketplace will not get us there unless energy prices reflect their true social and environmental costs.

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