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No advances on fuel front

Posted: February 23, 2012 12:13 p.m.
Updated: February 24, 2012 5:00 a.m.

As the price of gasoline approaches $4 a gallon -- with many saying it will reach $5 -- I was thinking recently of a column I wrote a few years ago during a similar spike in prices.

I went back and found it in the bowels of my computer, and it is as cogent now as it was then. Here’s what I said then, with a few updates:

More than three decades after the Department of Energy was created -- a massive bureaucracy whose purpose upon its founding under Jimmy Carter was to lessen the United States’ dependence upon foreign oil -- we’re still fighting unstable fuel prices and worrying about what’s going to happen in the Middle East.

And while we're more self-sustaining right now with gasoline, prices are still spiking wildly.

Meanwhile, Americans who vacation in Europe end up wondering why the fuel-efficient automobiles they rent across the sea aren’t available in the United States.

You can fly into virtually any city in Europe or the United Kingdom and rent a full-size car with a diesel engine that will deliver about 50 miles to the gallon of fuel.

Some of you are thinking, “Oh, yeah, I remember those diesels they produced here in the United States during the 1970s fuel crisis. Smelly, noisy, no pep, hard to start. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Not so anymore. The diesels currently in use across the water produce no noticeable odor. They’re quiet and have plenty of pep, enough to hammer down the freeway at 80 miles per hour and still be responsive when you press the accelerator to pass another car. Most have standard transmissions -- six speeds, fun to drive unless you have become a fuddy-duddy.

So why hasn’t that technology been brought to the United States?

Consider: there are more than 200 million passenger vehicles in this country. For cars recently, the average fuel efficiency was 32 miles to the gallon, according to government sources. But that includes smaller cars; for standard size vehicles, it would be less. Let’s be generous and say 30 mpg.

 (And we all know what you see on a sticker and what you really get on the road are two different numbers.)

If the average car is driven 10,000 miles a year, and if diesel technology would produce 50 miles to the gallon rather than 30, we would save 26 billion gallons of fuel a year. 

Is that a scientific analysis? Of course not. Just simplified, seat-of-the-pants math.

So why aren’t those 50-mpg mileage beasts available here in the U.S.?

It’s not a subject automakers like to discuss.

Some of them won’t discuss it at all.

The communications manager for one manufacturer basically told me to take a leap when I e-mailed him with questions. Another played dumb.

One finally gave me some straight answers, and it comes down to money, as you might guess. Both the consumer’s and the manufacturer’s.

Emissions standards, according to Richard Truett of Ford Motor Company, are tougher in the States than in Europe. That means it costs more to produce diesel cars. That, in turn, means a higher sticker price, which he says Americans aren’t willing to pay.

It boils down to a simple formula, one that’s understandable: American automakers can’t manufacture cars that fail to sell at a profit, and we shouldn’t expect them to.

So part of the reason lies with tough emission standards, which are even more expensive for diesels, and part lies with consumers who aren’t willing to pay top dollar when fuel costs $3 a gallon or less. Make it eight bucks, as it is in some European countries, and diesels might make sense here.

For the time being, American manufacturers are committed to hybrids as their high-mileage vehicles. Most are small and uncomfortable.

That might change if there’s an American demand for those spiffy diesels available in Europe, and if drivers here are willing to open their wallets more. But don’t count on it.

Those Mideast oil barons aren’t going to let us off the hook anytime soon.

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