Cars are getting better, but not the fuel economy — D1

Auto makers are trying very hard to get better fuel economy out of their cars. They are promoting the so called sub-compact cars, like Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and soon-to-be-shipped Smart fortwo from Chrysler. They are advertising alternative energy. Toyota’s hybrid technology is used extensively on the compact, standard and SUV models. Ford is shipping its hybrid sedans and SUV’s now. You may think that the makers are getting better fuel economy than ever before. But, surprisingly (at least to me), they did a much better job twenty or thirty years ago. In 1980’s compact cars could easily get average 50 plus miles per gallon. Cars in 80s performed even better than today’s most advanced hybrid cars on the road.

The magic of the astonishing fuel efficieny is simple, a smaller, less powerful engine for a lighter, smaller car. While wonderful technical advances in internal combustion engines have been made in the last two decades, most of these efforts focused on horsepower increass instead of fuel efficiency improvement. Can you imagine a BMW with 75 horsepower? That’s what a BMW 315 coupe has in 1979. Today, BMW 3 series coupe base model has a 230hp engine in it. While the now car can easily smoke its old brothers thanks to a better and larger engine,  we are not gaining any fuel economy here. Besides the pursuit of power and speed, today’s drivers pay much more attention to vehicle safety than before while shopping a car. The safety issue steers the auto makers to make bigger and heavier cars now. Today’s Civic is 3 feet longer and 900 pounds heavier than its ancestor in 1986. You can hardly emphasize the importance of safety, but safety comes with a price. Traditionally, Americans believe bigger-is-better when shopping for a car. They might baby cry when gas price soars, but they tend to forget what happened right after price goes down and rush to trade-in their compact cars bought because of gas prices.

Another surprising story on yesterday’s paper is that flight time is actually getting longer than before. With better technology in communication, mechanical design and engine design, it’s natural to assume that we can fly from point A to point B in less time compared to ten years ago. However, the truth is, airplane can fly faster, but the sky has never been more crowd. Just like traffic jam on the highway, air traffics are heavier and the flight time is longer. This not only annoys travelers but also hurts the airlines, badly.

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