Loving and Loathing the Internal Combustion Engine
UPDATED: Experts iscuss America’s thirst for gas and realistic options for the future.
By Bruce Murray
“We’re cowboys and cowgirls, and we want big powerful horses.
We think of John Wayne, not Willie Shoemaker.”
– Paul D. Ronney, former NASA Astronaut and USC Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.
Soaring gas prices have not fundamentally altered Americans’ driving habits and preference for SUVs, Hummers and other gas-guzzling vehicles. And the problems involved in purchasing oil from unstable and hostile countries have done little to deter Americans’ long-standing love affair with cars.
The Los Angeles Times recently published a 44-page commemorative car edition, celebrating Los Angeles’ 125-year “reckless love affair” with cars and the resulting smog, congestion and urban sprawl.
Top energy experts and automotive experts dealt with these issues and more at the June 15 and Oct. 12, 2006 National Energy Symposiums.
“People buy SUVs because of power, prestige, and they want a car that will be urban assault vehicle,” quipped NBC-4 reporter Conan Nolan, who moderated two of the expert panels at both symposiums.
“If a car is light, people are afraid they will get crushed on freeway. Does it have to reach a point when gas so expensive so expensive that people can’t afford to drive a one-ton pickup to the supermarket?” Nolan said.
Oil and cigarettes
Unraveling the question begins with the basic economics of supply and demand. Demand for certain products, like oil and cigarettes, is relatively unresponsive to price increases in the short term. For example, the government could impose a steep “sin tax” on cigarettes, causing the price of a pack to double, but demand would remain relatively stable. Smokers craving nicotine will still need to feed their habit regardless of whether a pack of cigarettes is $5 or $10.
Demand for gasoline is similar. In economic terms, demand for oil and cigarettes is considered “inelastic” – that is, demand is unresponsive to price changes in the short term. On a graph, a perfectly inelastic demand curve is vertical. Even if the price of gasoline were to double, demand would not change much in the short term. People will continue filling their tanks because they have to continue driving to work, taking their children to school, etc.
“The price of gas has very little effect on travel,” said Steven Mazor, Chief Automotive Engineer at the Automotive Research Center of the Automobile Club of Southern California. “People have to go to work and go where they are going to go.”
Although demand for gasoline is inelastic, at a certain point the prices simply will force people off the road or cause them to make drastic changes in driving habits.
“If people pay $30 or $35 to fill up their vehicle, it’s not going to make a big difference in their choices in buying a vehicle or where they are going to drive. But if they have to pay $100 to fill their gas tanks, they will think about looking at buying a smaller vehicle instead of an SUV,” Mazor said.
In the long run, price spikes in gasoline do affect demand, as people are able to adjust their lives – move closer to work, purchase a more efficient vehicle, carpool, etc.
“Ultimately are we are driven by our pocketbooks,” said Paul D. Ronney, former NASA Astronaut and USC professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering. “What happens if gasoline suddenly costs $10 a gallon tomorrow? What are you going to do differently? If electricity were 30 cents per kilowatt hour rather than 10 cents, what are you going to do differently? At that level, certainly people are going to do a lot of things differently.”
Go yellow, live green
About 5 million vehicles on the road today in the United States can run on either gasoline or corn ethanol blends. General Motors currently makes 17 different “FlexFuel” models that can run on either gasoline or E85 ethanol, according to Al Weverstad of General Motors’ Public Policy Center.
E85 is a blend of 15 percent gasoline 85 percent ethanol – produced mostly from corn. Weverstand said FlexFuel vehicles are a major part of GM’s environmental plan, and the company plans to double the number of its flex vehicles by 2010.
But many experts say corn ethanol is not a magic bullet for the nation’s energy problems: Ethanol produces greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants – in some cases even more than gasoline; and it takes almost as much energy to produce ethanol as it can generate.
“Ethanol is a very costly substitute for oil,” said James Sweeney, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University.
Sweeney said a major complication with ethanol is maintaining the optimal blend. The blend is compromised, if, for example, someone fills a flex vehicle with E85, uses half a tank and then fills up again with gasoline. “They have blended it themselves,” Sweeney said. The result is the emission of more NOx, or nitric oxides, and other damaging volatile organic compounds.
“Ethanol, in the wrong mix, creates a synergy with gasoline that generates more pollutants,” Sweeney said. “There are practical realities as to how we might move toward ethanol, and we’re going to end up with these mixed blends that are environmentally damaging,” Sweeney said.
Some point to Brazil as a model ethanol economy. Ethanol, in this case made mostly from sugar cane, constitutes about 40 percent of Brazil’s transportation fuel; and the South American country is also a leader in the development of biodiesel.
Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, said it is unlikely the Brazilian model can be replicated in the United States. The Brazilian government has subsidized its ethanol industry for more than 25 years. Only recently has the industry become profitable.
“Brazil has a very established model, and they have stuck with it. Sugar cane grows well there; they have cheap land, cheap labor, and they don’t have strong pollution controls. There is probably no other place in the world where all of those elements come together. Brazil is a kind of one-off,” he said.
Sperling and Sweeney the best argument for continuing investment in corn ethanol is if it leads to the development of ethanol derived cellulose products. Cellulose is a component of grasses, trees, corn stalks and other plants. It is also contained in agricultural byproducts and “green” municipal waste. Archer Daniels Midland Company is researching the use of cellulose as a fuel source.
“The internal combustion engine is the worst form of vehicle propulsion … except for all of the other forms.”
– Paul D. Ronney, former NASA Astronaut and USC professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering
Internal combustion engines are about 30 percent efficient – that is, about 30 percent of the heat energy produced by burning the fuel is transformed into mechanical energy. Gas-electric hybrid vehicles can reach up to 50 percent efficiency.
“All of the automobile companies are embracing hybrid technology,” Sperling said. “Clearly, this is the technology path of the future. And it is also the market path.”
Ronney said other factors need to be considered when judging the efficiency of hybrids, particularly the source of the electric energy used to charge up the vehicles’ batteries.
“The big problem is the feedstock [for electricity generation],” Ronney said. “For plug-in hybrids, the energy has to come from somewhere. If it’s coal, coal produces twice as much greenhouse gas per unit of energy produced compared to natural gas. Gasoline about halfway between. So we have this dichotomy: In coal we have a good source of energy that is domestic. But we have the greenhouse gas issue to deal with.”
Ronney said a number of technical challenges remain if hybrids are to compete with straight gasoline-powered vehicles in terms of overall costs and energy efficiency. In terms energy storage and power output, gasoline is a very efficient fuel source.
“Gasoline has a high energy per unit weight in comparison to batteries. You can store an awful lot more energy in fuel than you can store than in batteries – about 100 times more,” Ronney said. “If you compare fuel cells to internal combustion engines, you cannot get anywhere near the power per unit weight. Gasoline or even diesel engines can produce much more power per unit weight or volume of engine than electric motors, steam engines, fuel cells or just about anything else other than nuclear reactors.”
In addition, Ronney said it is important to factor in the resources necessary to produce hybrid vehicles – electric motors, cables, copper and especially batteries. “From environmental point of view, batteries are a real nightmare. They are made with toxic metals,” he said.
Sperling said hybrid vehicle technology is being vastly improved. For example, the Toyota Prius can get 50 percent fuel economy, and the batteries can last longer than 10 years. And the car companies are only in the first and second generation hybrid technology, leaving more room for improvement and efficiency, Sperling said.
Conservation and efficiency
In lieu of moving toward hybrids, Ronney said the best way to conserve energy in the transportation sector is to improve the fuel efficiency of standard automobiles.
“In short term or intermediate term (10 years), the solution is more on the conservation side – if we could improve the efficiency of petroleum-powered products by 10 percent,” he said. “Internal combustion engines are most efficient when running at a constant speed at a constant load, which is near maximum. That means you want a small car with a small engine and run it flat out. You can save a little bit of energy with hybrids, but you have to weigh that against the extra costs.”
Ronney said driving smaller, lighter cars would save more energy than hybrids. Most of the fuel used to power cars is expended in overcoming air drag. Building more aerodynamic cars would save a significant amount of fuel.
Sperling said the automobile industry has been steadily moving in the direction of improved technology and efficiency. Each year for the past 20 years, vehicles have become about 1 percent more efficient. In another 20 years, if technology continues to advance, cars could be another 20 percent more efficient, he said.
Steven Mazor of the Automobile Club said there are many ways people can conserve fuel and maintain their current driving lifestyle. Proper car maintenance, driving slower and less aggressively, and avoiding rush hour can result in significant savings.
“There is a significant potential for fuel savings in the way you drive and care for your car. You can conserve fuel and still maintain your lifestyle. This way, we can even out the supply and demand curve,” he said.
Beth Lowery, General Motors Vice President of Environment and Energy, Public Affairs Division, said that even SUV drivers can conserve energy by making sure their vehicles are maintained, driving the speed limit, and having the right tire inflation.
Lowery said GM is trying to accommodate the demand for performance with conservation. For example, she said the “active fuel management system” allows an eight cylinder car to run on four cylinders while the car is cruising. When additional power is needed, the other four cylinders kick in.
Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards regulate fuel economy on passenger cars and light trucks. CAFE sets minimum miles per gallon requirements on vehicles with a gross vehicle weight of 8,500 pounds or less.
The auto industry is generally anti-CAFE, while environmentalists say CAFE doesn’t go far enough. Most notably, light trucks that exceed 8,500 pounds are exempt from CAFE standards. These vehicles include pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and large vans.
Roland Hwang, Vehicles Policy Director with Natural Resources Defense Council said CAFE standards need to be updated to take into account advances in technology and efficiency, and therefore minimum miles per gallon standards need to be increased.
The auto industry is generally resistant to such regulation. “The biggest problem with CAFE it puts the automobile company between the government regulation and the customer. The freedom of choice of the customer has been compromised,” GM’s Weverstad said.
“We do like our cars, and we like our freedom,” Hwang said. “The issue of freedom of choice intersects very squarely when it comes to the public interest. And here there is a public interest, and the country has decided with pollution standards and safety standards that automobiles need to be regulated.”
Congress has recently discussed increasing CAFE standards in response to energy security concerns and climate change. In 2004, the Congressional Budget Office released a study that estimated a 3.8-miles-per-gallon increase in the standards would result in a 10 percent reduction of gasoline consumption.
The study also examined the effects of imposing additional taxes on gasoline to decrease consumption. A gasoline tax would produce greater immediate savings by encouraging people to drive less, and eventually choosing more-fuel-efficient vehicles, according to the study's author, David Austin.
But are legislators willing to take the political risk of imposing a new tax? No way, says California State Rep. Joseph Canciamilla (D-Contra Costa County).
“We are not prepared to tell the public they have to pay more. In fact, we’ll do just the opposite," he said.
Back in the USSR?
So what is the government’s role in regulating the auto industry and influencing the car-buying public? Should the government require that car companies produce smaller cars or require that people buy smaller cars? Should the government step in and set fleet restrictions – commanding the amount and types of vehicles car companies produce? Or should the government impose a high tax on SUVs, Hummers and other gas-guzzling vehicles to reduce consumption? Or should freedom of choice reign?
Since the United States is not a command economy, like the former Soviet Union, it is unlikely to impose fleet restrictions, said Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. And legislators are shy about imposing taxes on vehicles – politically unpopular among constituents.
Is the government willing to say, “You can have your Hummer, but you have to pay the tax?” Lee asked. “This is a big philosophical question.”
It is possible to produce cars that get 70 miles per gallon, and the government could require car companies to make them, but very few people would buy them without major incentives or draconian taxes on other vehicles. “The government has been very reluctant to make that kind of intervention,” Lee said.
But without government intervention, the car-buying public is unlikely to make significant conservation efforts on its own, unless, perhaps, the price of gasoline exceeds $10 per gallon.
“When you talk to the car companies, they tell you they provide what the consumer wants. If the consumer wants a large car, they will provide a large car. American car companies like to sell trucks and SUVs” because of the high profit margin, Lee said.
The customer is always right
“Customers are very rational. They will make decisions based on the economics of the issue.”
– Beth Lowery, General Motors Vice President of Environment and Energy, Public Affairs Division
Given their druthers, Americans would buy their favorite gas-guzzling “urban assault vehicles”; and the auto industry is happy to give the public what it wants.
“Even with $3-per-gallon gasoline, our full-size sport utility vehicles, new models, are up 121 percent,” GM’s Weverstad said. “We struggle with CAFE because our fleet distribution tends toward the larger vehicles that ultimately the customer wants.”
What the customer wants is not fuel efficiency, but performance, Ronney said. “What sells cars is not efficiency, but power,” he said. “The curse of death for any car is for a magazine say it’s gutless.”
“Fuel efficiency hasn’t been a huge driver of purchase decisions,” confirmed GM’s Lowery. “What consumers say when filling out surveys and what they actually do when they put their money on the table are two different things. What they want is performance.”
And what automakers want, quite simply, is to sell their products, Lowery noted. “Most importantly for GM, we want to have cars and trucks that people are going to buy,” she said. “We do make more money on larger vehicles; smaller vehicles cost less [at the retail level]. We are trying to make all of our vehicles more profitable. It’s up to the car companies to get technology up to the point where it has efficiency and performance. It is a balancing act.”
Sperling said hybrid technology and fuel cells provide a counter-incentive: “For the first time, consumers are seeing a way to exercise their desire to do good – to buy into advanced technology, to reduce fuel consumption, and not to fund terrorists in Middle East,” he said.
“That is the technology path and probably the market path. In terms of policy, we really should be thinking about how to support the transition,” Sperling said.
Originally posted October 30, 2006.