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Why can’t Detroit build a car that gets 100 mpg?


Why can’t Detroit build a car that gets 100 mpg?

The Universal Notebook

So the U.S. House of Representatives in all its wisdom has voted to approve a bailout for U.S. automakers Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. The Big Three asked for $34 billion and got $14 billion in emergency loans with a few strings attached. As of this writing, the U.S. Senate has not acted on the auto industry rescue plan, but if I were in the Senate I’d be tempted to vote against it.

Why? Because, despite the potentially disastrous domino effect the collapse of one or two of the major auto companies might have on the U.S. economy, I’m beginning to believe it might be best in the long run if we let the dinosaurs die. That may sound like a conservative Republican free-marketeer position to take, but it’s actually a liberal Democrat’s plea for a far more regulated marketplace.

It’s pretty clear to me that the only way we are going to get the fuel-efficient, low-emission transportation we need in this country is to mandate it. As long as we allow the so-called free market to dictate what Detroit makes and gas prices remain below $2 a gallon, we’re going to get gas-guzzling behemoths. Even in begging for a bailout, the automakers beat back congressional demands that they drop lawsuits against tough emissions standards in states like California and Maine.

Believe me, if Detroit thought it could make money building gas-electric hybrids, it would have converted its factories long ago. The Toyota Prius may be the future of personal transportation, but, from what I understand, it not only does not really get the advertised 60 miles per gallon, it also doesn’t make money yet for Toyota.

The only way I would support a major auto industry bailout is if it mandated that U.S.-built automobiles get far better gas mileage. There may be a market for cars and trucks that get less than 30 mpg, but that doesn’t make it ethical to build or to sell them. If Congress mandated that Detroit build cars that get 50, 60 or even 100 mpg, they’d be on the market in no time.

Of course, I’m a great one to talk. Our little Hyundai gets a little better than 30 mpg, but the old Subaru Outback barely gets 30 mpg on the highway and much less around town.

My neighbor Dan, however, drives a 1997 Volvo that gets 34 mpg. How is that possible? Dan is a very handy guy and he’s serious about reducing energy consumption. He explained to me the other day how he had installed a hydrolyzer on his Volvo, increasing his gas mileage from 21 mpg to 34 mpg.

As I understand (or misunderstand) it, the hydrolyzer, a little gizmo that looks like a coffee canister, converts water into a gas that makes his car run far more efficiently. (Check it out at

Dan also installed a hydrolyzer in his little two-seater Honda Insight. The hydrolyzer didn’t dramatically improve its gas mileage (it’s a hybrid that was already getting 60 mpg), but it did give the Insight a much-needed 25 percent boost in horsepower.

So if my neighbor up the street can rig his old Volvo up to get 60 percent better gas mileage, why can’t Detroit, with all its resources and technologies, build a car that gets 50 or even 100 mpg? I have to believe it can. It just lacks the will – or the market incentive. Congress could supply that incentive.

If there is to be an upside to this downward economic spiral we’re in, it might be that we have an opportunity to do things differently and better when we pull out of it. Developing more fuel-efficient cars might be one of them.

The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem's weekly personal look at the world around him. The ideas and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Forecaster.

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