Monday, August 15, 2011

The thrill is gone

You probably missed it, what with all the screaming and yelling that passes for news these days, but they've given us new, higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for 2016. Here we go again.

Paybacks may be a bitch as people are wont to say, but unintended consequences of half thought out measures are worse. It was the first round of government standards that gave us those big, dangerous hunks of steel we call Sport Utility Vehicles; an appellation I still can't endure without a smirk. Yes, sure, the 1948 Willys Jeepster was an SUV, but when the gummint told the auto manufacturers they had to sell more low profit, low performance and soulless austerity vehicles like Chevettes and Pintos, they cynically took unwieldy trucks and gave them womb-like upholstery. Just the thing to prowl pot holed city streets booming like thunder and sucking up the gas. Enter the Hummer, exit sanity.

No telling what will emerge after 2016, but don't look for some significant breakthrough in engine efficiency. Yes, today's engines make a lot more power per unit of displacement and use less fuel to do it, but making them smaller, much more complex and winding them harder has about run it's course and it's a course that didn't always include driveability. Further improvements have to come from something new, like hybrids where the familiar reciprocating engine shuts down and restarts all the time ( and don't ask what that does to engines.) Electrics have limitations you can't dream away and that means the bottom line is smaller and lighter and slower and maybe a much shorter useful life. That might mean more trucks as an alternative - just like it has from the beginning.

Don't concern yourself with improvements in that thrill of driving 'cause there ain't gonna be none. When I think of the car of the future, more miles per gallon seems like less car. Think Europe. Think Fiat Panda, think pain, think sack cloth and ashes. Don't think aerodynamics, stability, transient response, acceleration, speed or braking performance; think skinny tires, high center of gravity, tiny wheels and lots of electronic gadgetry to make up for your lousy driving ability.

Of course, being a government agency, the EPA isn't staffed by car lovers and it it's saddled by obsolete rules that weren't set by engineers and never got around to being changed. I think of how in the 1930's we began to mandate "sealed beam" headlights because they were better than the prevailing bulb/reflector type. I remember how the technology soon made them obsolete too, but we were saddled with them for decades afterwards to our detriment.

The same applies to the EPA mileage ratings. In short we no longer drive the way the politicians assumed when the rules were set down -- if we ever did in the first place. EPA mileage tests assume a rate of acceleration so painfully slow that it would result in horns honked and shots fired. That gives tiny engines a test score advantage that doesn't apply to real driving. They assume a top speed of 60MPH, when the average on my local highways is over 80 and suburban traffic rolls along at 60 but stops every 200 yards. Don't forget that air resistance increases with the square of the speed, so rolling boxes: SUV's 'Crossovers' and the like seem not to be as awful as they really are and low, sleek, slippery sports cars seem worse.

Although brief stops are included, the results do not include time spent waiting at lights. That can, in urban and suburban driving account for half the time you spend behind the wheel. Some cars use much less at idle - or none at all, while some gulp down the gallons, but the EPA rating doesn't notice. Air conditioning use is at least a 10 month thing here, but again, the EPA doesn't bother to factor in AC efficiency either. So what we're likely to get out of this knee-jerk environmentalism is more of what we have - or much less if you see it my way.

Perhaps it's like the SAT tests: accurate at measuring things that may or may not matter. Perhaps that's why my boxy, 1.5 liter PT cruiser gets nowhere near the highway mileage my 6 liter Corvette does even though the EPA figures are similar, neither does it run 12 second quarter mile times or do 190MPH. It can't cruise around town at 800 RPM and still give you whiplash when your mood changes. The cars this new CAFE standard will produce? It's not too likely to be something my grandchildren will prize 30 years from now when most things are throw-away consumables like beer cans and Bic lighters.

But most of all it doesn't howl like the bloody wrath of God when you need to get that pushy little Beemer off your ass, or that cowboy idiot in his pick up truck is sniffing up your tailpipe like a dog in heat or that hiphop box of brain dead teens with plastic wings and a cartoon face. It can't come off a 1G apex at 6500 Mother of God RPM, tires on fire and screaming Glory Hallelujah either.

But it'll be "green" like astroturf, as exiting as a Lawrence Welk polka and it will get you there, sealed tightly in a steel safety capsule breathing canned air as you transport your dead soul across what used to be America but is now the land of "you can't have that any more - or that, or that."

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