We Were Promised Flying Cars, Instead Fuel-Efficient Cars Are Flying Off The Lots

Flying cars may be a few more decades off — or relegated to a permanent niche by their inherent inefficiency — but how are we doing on a post-gasoline future?

When President Obama announced Charlotte Mayor (and streetcar fan) Anthony Foxx as his pick to be the next Transportation Secretary this week, current Secretary Ray LaHood said that the improved fuel economy standards he helped achieve were a “big deal.”

These Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards have been improved such that the cars sold in American will get an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That is much stronger than the 35 mpg by 2020 goal set in the energy law signed by President Bush in 2007.

How is that working out? Last month, the average fuel economy reached a record high:

According to the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, the average fuel-economy value of vehicles sold nationally during March reached a record high of 24.6 mpg — a 0.2 mpg increase from the revised value for February 2013.

This brings the efficiency value up 4.5 mpg from October 2007, the starting point for the institute’s monitoring, the institute’s director and project manager noted in a joint statement. In October 2012, the institute recorded the value at 24.1 mpg.

In model year 2012, car makers made record improvements and beat the first year targets. The year’s fleet-wide CO2 emissions dropped to 296 grams per mile, a 13 percent improvement from 2007. It is not only the growth in hybrid and electric vehicles that is driving this trend: SUVs are getting more efficient, direct-injection systems have grown from zero to 24 percent of all models, turbochargers and variable-speed transmissions are more prevalent, and vehicles are becoming lighter. A quarter of model year 2012 vehicles already meet the 2016 standards.

It might seem like these changes are moving too fast for the public, but the reality is that huge majorities support the new standards (92 percent of Democrats, 87 for Independents, and 77 for Republicans).

As the gasoline-based fleet starts to use less gasoline, electric cars continue to make a stronger and stronger case for their incorporation into the fleet — and the grid.

In 1991, Amory Lovins invented the concept of “vehicle-to-grid” systems, where parked-and-charging electric cars would use their batteries as massive banks of distributed energy sources and stores for the grid. An owner of an electric car usually only drives it for a few hours a day. When it is not being driven, charging away at work or home, it does not need every hour to charge. So vehicle owners could choose to use the time to both charge and supply the grid with energy during peak hours and second-by-second variations in demand, known as “frequency regulation. ”

Utilities see this as an asset, and will pay for the privilege of using an electric car’s battery like this. New technology from researchers at the University of Delaware allows American electric cars to both charge and discharge — right now, most do not have the technology for this. The cost would be $400 per car, but because the electric company would pay about $5 per day (almost $1800 per year) for the privilege of connecting to an electric vehicle, owners would earn back that cost in less than 3 months. Stronger chargers still in development would allow a fleet of cars move beyond frequency regulation into operating as “spinning reserve” — which means replacing a natural gas-fired turbine spinning and waiting to pick up utility load within seconds. The military is even trying out vehicle-to-grid in a pilot project on domestic bases.

Electric cars are powered by the current grid, which is generally composed of well over three-quarters fossil fuel-based energy. However, as renewables become a larger part of the electricity charging our vehicles, the gasoline-free fleet would become an actual carbon-free. As it releases its new i green car brands, BMW is beginning to offer a discount on installation of a rooftop garage solar microgeneration system.

More prosaically, states are still grappling with the fact that a growing share of the cars on their roads are using either less or no gasoline. Virginia’s new transportation law cuts the gas tax but levies a fine on electric cars. A California bill looks to cut the sales tax on plug-ins. There are few laws on the books protecting car charging parking spots for electric cars. “Range anxiety,” which means concern over having enough charge to continue driving, is one of the barriers electric cars face to wide adoption. As the infrastructure gets installed nationwide to support electric cars, it does little good if a gasoline-powered car is blocking the spot, like a stagecoach parked in a gas station.

8 Responses to We Were Promised Flying Cars, Instead Fuel-Efficient Cars Are Flying Off The Lots

  1. Superman1 says:

    This article is analogous to a three-pack-a-day smoker being diagnosed with spots on the lung, announcing that he had reduced his habit to 2.5 packs a day over five years, and in a decade would be down to a pack a day. We have run out of carbon budget shown by a number of metrics, and any more CO2 emissions only places us further into the extreme danger zone. While any mileage improvement should be commended, the absolute value of what we are still emitting puts us that much closer to the cliff.

  2. SecularAnimist says:

    The progress of electric car technology, including fast-charging stations and vehicle-to-grid integration, is really impressive.

    The new fuel-efficiency standards are not. I drive a 22-year old Ford Festiva that gets 35 MPG in worst-case, stop-and-go urban traffic, and over 50 MPG on the open highway — with 22-year old technology. There were a number of other vehicles sold in the USA around 1990 (e.g. the Geo Metro) that got comparable gas mileage. And the US car manufacturers have been building 60 MPG cars for years — but only selling them in Europe and Asia, not in the US market where gas-guzzling SUVs were their cash cows.

    There is nothing impressive about requiring the auto corporations to do by 2025 what they have been able to do since 1985.

    Now, a BAN on internal combustion engines in all new, non-emergency civilian vehicles in 2025 might be impressive … the way EV battery & charging technology is progressing, fossil fueled cars may be obsolete by then anyway.

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    A few thoughts on all this…

    Speaking as a recent leasee of a Nissan Leaf, I can say with authority that it’s an absolute blast to drive, even when one is not driving by a gas station and laughing like Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the first Batman movie.

    EVs and PHEVs are right on the cusp of going from niche to mainstream, thanks to cost reductions. Some GM exec was just recently quoted as saying that the next version of the Volt will not be decontented and will see a $7k to $10k price drop. I expect to see the next gen Leaf drop a bit in price ($2k to $3k?) and increase its range (20%?). Both the Volt 2.0 and the Leaf 2.0 should be on the market in 2015, alongside (hopefully) much wider availability of the Fit EV, the Spark EV, the Fiat 500 EV, etc.

    All pluggable cars will automatically get much cleaner as we decarbonize our electricity supply, something we have to do whether our rolling stock of vehicles is 0% or 100% electric. We simply can’t get to where we need to be, emissions-wise, without making that transition. (I live in an area where customers can choose their electricity supplier, so my Leaf already gets 100% green electrons.)

  4. Ed Leaver says:

    The “doubling of mileage standards” by 2025 is pretty much on, but the 54.5 mpg CAFE figure is misleading because most people will (logically) assume NHTSA CAFE is the same as average EPA mileage, which it is not. EPA average mileage will end up being a bit over 40 mpg — still impressive — but there will be those who’ll whine “But we were supposed to have 54.5 mpg! You promised!!!”

    Festiva, Metro, & friends were fine for their day, but are rolling death-traps against the SUV’s that followed. Lose the Festiva, you’ll live longer ;)

  5. Anderlan says:

    “However, as renewables become a larger part of the electricity charging our vehicles, the gasoline-free fleet would become an actual carbon-free.”

    At present, in most markets, if you are the one of the first (or first hundred thousand) EVs in your area, nighttime charging is ALREADY carbon-free!

    The ‘spinning reserve’ you speak of at night is usually much higher than in the day. There are only a handful of plants in an area, running at, say, 50% fuel consumptions, but with only, say, 10% of the load at night. I desperately need to get harder numbers on this, it’s true. But all indications are that for most people, maybe for the first hundred million cars, spread across the nation, the only emissions from nighttime charging will be emissions that would have been “WASTED” anyway because of the way the grids are engineered.

    Complete and total guilt free driving.

  6. Anderlan says:

    Not to mention cheaper. Average equivalent cost of electricity is $1/gallon. But average cost at night using load-based billing is a QUARTER per gallon.

  7. SecularAnimist says:

    Ed Leaver wrote: “Festiva, Metro, & friends were fine for their day, but are rolling death-traps against the SUV’s that followed. Lose the Festiva, you’ll live longer”

    I’m 60 years old and I’ve been driving the Festiva for 20 years, so I’m not too worried about that. In fact, its agility and responsive handling has saved me from a couple of accidents.

    Having said that, one would think that after 22 YEARS, the technology would have progressed to build cars that get AT LEAST as good gas mileage as the 1990-vintage Festiva, Metro and Civic while including modern safety features (e.g. air bags) that they lacked.

    And of course, as I noted, it has — all of the major US auto manufacturers build 60 MPG compact cars with modern safety features, but only sell them in Europe and Asia. And in fact, one way that Ford and other companies are improving the efficiency of their US fleets is by simply bring to the US market the fuel-efficient cars they have been selling in Europe for years.

  8. Jake says:

    I think all the fancy things cars have these days, and the improved safety standards bump up the weight a bit. Not that car companies couldn’t do a lot better than what they do now.