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Auto-Evolution: Fuel Efficiency AND Performance

Possible Design of Next Prius
Possible Design of Next Prius

At every major crossroads in the automotive industry, car manufacturers have stepped up to produce… garbage.  Ok, that’s not always true, but maybe that isn’t so bad either.  Even failures, often ESPECIALLY failures, have ultimately forced car companies out of a comfortable status quo mentality to produce better, faster and safer vehicles. 

Take the current state of things here in the U.S.  There are positive signs of a sharp acceleration and urgency among car manufacturers to develop and compete for dominance in automobile fuel efficiency; not exactly shocking news given the cost of oil.  What is shocking is how long it has taken the auto industry to respond to a problem that hasn’t exactly snuck up on consumers.  Quite paradoxically, there seems to be a simultaneous resurrection of the horsepower wars of the 1960’s. 

While the 2010 Camaro’s debut in showrooms seems to be a foregone conclusion, and new high performance Mustangs, Corvettes and Challengers are already here, one would think that gas and economic crisis were only an illusion instead of a hard reality of American life.  Is this 1968 and not 2008?  The response from automakers will be that car design, planning, production, etc., do not happen instantaneously, and that time, often YEARS is needed to shift production to new types of vehicles.  Like the previously mentioned muscle and sports cars, if there is a market for sales, car companies will produce it. 

But regardless of whether you are a believer in climate change, pumping oil in Alaska or running your car on corn and grease, the truth is that gas prices themselves are without a doubt headed to even higher levels.  By some estimates to at least $7 a gallon in as little as two years.  I’m sure that for the well-heeled this will be but a minor inconvenience as they continue to drive whatever and whenever they want.  But for everyday car enthusiasts who dry-heave at the idea of driving a Yaris or Versa, there is hope.  There is good reason to believe that not only will future technology produce cars that are economical, but that future auto designers and engineers will also adapt to the demands of modern society as they have in the past, to utilize those same innovations to produce fun, fast and stylish vehicles.  Here are some reasons we will be able to have our cake and eat it too.

New technology must be available in mass produced vehicles.  This is a practical matter, borne of a need to test durability of new innovations and guage its use and impact in a large enough pool of cars in real life driving conditions.  With the next generation Prius launch date approaching in January of 2009 speculation is that fuel efficiency will be in the 94 mpg range, a sharp increase from the prior model, while also being a second faster over its predecessor.  The new Prius will be both longer and lower while getting a boost in total horsepower and top speed.  This feat will be accomplished by a redesigned engine and synergy plant from the previous fuel sipper from Toyota.  There is also speculation that there will be a high-end Prius offered that will sport solar panels on the roof to maintain the AC system.  Solar panel use on vehicles is not unique to the Prius; several cars are doing likewise.  (Check out my article on the new Fisker Hybrid) But the next Toyota Prius will not cost $50,000-80,000 either. 

Fuel efficient technology must extend further into the large truck market.  Especially in the U.S. that has a vast amount of land that by necessity relies on truck and commercial traffic.  In order for  fuel consumption as a nation to be curbed, these types of vehicles have to be weaned off of gas.  The good news is that in some ways this is one of the easier things to implement.  Fuel cells and hydrogen technology are more cost effective and feasible in larger vehicles which have the physical space to accommodate the components and travel greater distances.  There are already 12 ton electric trucks (They call them lorries) rolling around Great Britain and Hydrogen-fuel busses in Iceland. 

Fuel efficiency does not have to be at the expense of performance.  The best example of this is the relatively well-known fully electric Tesla Roadster which gets up to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds.  Ok, it does cost north of $100,000.  But remember it wasn’t that long ago when computers were too expensive for most people to buy either.  Now laptops cost $100 and are being handed out to children in African villages.

Fuel efficiency does not have to be at the expense of style.  This is a completely subjective area, of course.  At present, the most fuel efficient vehicles happen to have a certain “look.”  They tend to be small and cramped.  I personally don’t find the look of the Prius to be objectionable, but I know many that would rather drive the Oscar-Mayer weinermobile around than what is described as that “hunched over cockroach.”  Fair enough.  But the shape is the result of improving aerodynamics, something traditional sports cars are naturally also concerned with.  After all, when was the last time something shaped like a bread truck won a road race?  Once the engineering that goes into making the car run more efficiently is perfected, designers will be able to wrap it up in a number of cool ways.

So take heart; the days of having to choose between fuel efficiency and performance won’t last forever.  Now, if we can just kick Detroit in gear to get it done.

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