Most people want horsepower. They don't want fuel economy.
Scott Malone - Reuters - Oct. 27, 2006
The iconic Prius helped spark U.S. consumer interest in fuel saving technology.
BOSTON - Designing a more fuel efficient car can be less of a challenge than selling one.
But with the number of autos on the world's roads expected to triple over the next half-century and fuel prices expected to rise, automakers need to focus on both problems.
That was the message from a panel of automotive experts at The World Oil Conference on Friday.
"Most people want horsepower. They don't want fuel economy," said Bill Reinert, national manager of advanced technology for the U.S. arm of Toyota Motor Corp.
His company introduced the iconic Prius gasoline-electric hybrid, which helped to spark U.S. consumer interest in the technology, which pairs an internal combustion engine with an electric motor to use less gasoline. Rivals, including Honda Motor Co., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp have also introduced hybrids.
Consumers have become more interested in fuel efficient vehicles as gasoline prices have risen. U.S. retail gasoline prices peaked above $3 per gallon this summer, driven by rising use and concerns about limited long-term petroleum supplies.
But as gasoline prices have eased back down to around $2.20 per gallon, consumer concerns about fuel economy have faded - evidenced by a recent bounce-back in the sale of light trucks.
"The consumer doesn't care about fuel economy. What they care about is how much does it cost me to go from home to work?" said Andy Frank, a professor at the University of California at Davis.
LEAPS OR BABY STEPS?
Frank is a proponent of plug-in hybrid cars, which at low speeds can run on electricity drawn from home power outlets and stored in batteries. He argued that power drawn from the electricity grid would compare in cost to gasoline at 70 cents per gallon.
While that could lead to enormous savings in gasoline usage, plug-in hybrids are seen as even more of a niche product than gasoline hybrids, which would limit their overall influence on fuel consumption. No major automaker has introduced one to the United States market.
To reduce demand for gasoline - which represents about 30 percent of the U.S.'s petroleum usage - a more effective strategy would be to improve the efficiency of traditional gasoline engines, which power the lion's share of cars bought in the United States, said John Heywood, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"There's a lot of improvement potential in everything and what really matters is getting lots of those improved engines and transmissions out there, fast," Heywood said.
Beyond consumer reaction to rising gasoline prices, though, automakers have another incentive to focus on reducing fuel consumption. Regulators in the United States and abroad have begun to pay more attention to the contributions of car emissions - including carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases - to global warming.
Last month, California sued six of the world's largest automakers, including Toyota, Honda, Ford and GM, charging that emissions from their vehicles have caused billions of dollars in damages. The suit was the first of its kind against automakers, but mirrored claims brought by governments against makers of cigarettes, which sought to recoup some of the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses.
"I know we're seen mostly as the cigarette industry throughout the world," Reinert said. "To a certain extent, we do deserve that, our lobbying efforts have been mostly successful."