Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fat and fast

I've long thought that a problem with the nation's fuel consumption is the proliferation of heavy, powerful cars and trucks. All else being equal, a lighter, less powerful vehicle requires less fuel.

The editor-in-chief of Car and Driver came to a similar conclusion from a different angle. He explains how engines get more efficient but cars do not by noting that cars are getting heavier and more powerful. If you make a more efficient engine, you can use the efficiency to consume less fuel or to create more power. In the U.S., because of cheap gas, the market has demanded more power, with a corresponding increase in vehicle weight.

How can you encourage people to buy lighter and less powerful cars? (Note, I used the word "lighter," not light. A certain amount of weight gain is attributable to safety.)

How about a tax on the combination of power, weight, and performance?

If you need a big truck and lots of power—for towing and hauling—you don't need to be able to accelerate quickly or go fast. In fact, if you're hauling stuff or people, you probably shouldn't be peeling out or going too fast.

If you want some zip—and I'm not completely anti-performance—you should be willing to accept some limitation on weight.

But, there's no reasonable case to be made for a truck like the Cadillac Escalade, which weighs nearly 3 tons, has 400 horsepower, and goes from zero to 60 mph in 6.3 seconds. Or for a 4700lb. Dodge Minivan that gets to 60 in 8.2 seconds. Or a 4200 lb. Toyota Highlander that gets to 60 in 7.0 seconds.

It would be trivial to put a chip on cars over a certain weight (3500 lbs?) that limits acceleration to 0-60 in 10.0 (or higher). It's would use the same technology that already applies the brakes and cuts down power to provide stability control and roll-over protection. Tax the bejeezus out of anyone who wants a heavy car or truck without the chip.

The chip wouldn't hurt the working stiff who needs a big, powerful truck. He shouldn't be deterred by slow acceleration as long as the truck can haul and tow.

The chip wouldn't hurt the large family that needs something biggish for kids and kid detritus. Do you need to do stoplight drag racing in a minivan?

The chip should only discourage people who buy cars and trucks that are bigger and and more powerful than they need. (Think of all the weight for off-roading equipped SUVs that never go off road.)

I made a similar argument here.

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