Declaring Oil Independence: Fuel Efficient Cars

David Friedman, an expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, on taking charge of our addiction to oil and creating better, more fuel-efficient cars.
By David Friedman
October/November 2005
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Our oil dependence is on a dangerous course.
Photo courtesy TTstudio/Fotolia


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It is time to face facts: 60 percent of the oil consumed in the United States is imported. That dependence is expected to be 75 percent in the next few decades. The United States sends about $350,000 every minute to other countries just to feed our oil habit. Last year, petroleum imports represented one-quarter of our total trade deficit.

It is time for a revolution — a declaration of independence from one of the biggest causes of our oil consumption: gas-guzzling vehicles. With gas prices well above $2 per gallon throughout the country, and the possibility of $3 per gallon on the horizon, everyone will benefit from breaking away from gas guzzling.

For every driver on the road, there are some easy steps to help: properly inflate tires, do not drive aggressively and keep up with regular maintenance. But to declare true oil independence, everyone needs to contribute, including automakers and our government. Automakers need to incorporate fuel-saving technologies into every vehicle they sell. If automakers fail in this regard (as they have so far), a government of the people, by the people and for the people must step up and legislate change.

A recent Yale survey found that nine out of 10 people think the auto industry should be required to manufacture cars that get better gas mileage. Consumers want real choices when they step into the showroom, not the “can’t do” attitude most in the industry show today.

Most of today’s automakers are too stingy with currently available technologies such as efficient engines and transmissions; high-strength steel and aluminum; improved aerodynamics; and hybrid gasoline/electric systems. If car companies take a “can do” approach and put these components into all new cars and trucks, consumers would have fuel-efficient vehicles that safely carry the entire family and have great performance. For example, a team of engineers at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) created a blueprint for a better sport utility vehicle (SUV), the UCS Guardian. With the size and acceleration of a Ford Explorer SUV, the Guardian could reach about 28 miles per gallon (about 31 percent better than the Ford Explorer) for only $600 in extra technology. But examples such as this will only happen if the U.S. government holds automakers to a higher standard. At today’s gas prices, the Guardian’s added fuel efficiency would pay for the extra cost in a little more than a year. With a few more improvements, we think the Guardian’s fuel economy could be more than 35 mpg.

In 2004, UCS examined the economic benefits of raising vehicle efficiency from today’s 20-year low of 21 mpg to 40 mpg by 2015. We found that doing so would create 339,400 new jobs — 37,200 in the auto industry alone —by 2020. Every state would benefit, with California, Michigan, New York, Florida, Ohio and Illinois seeing the greatest job growth. In the year 2020 alone, this 40-mpg fuel economy standard would cut our national oil use by 3.8 million barrels per day — more than we currently import from the Persian Gulf. It would also reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 430 million metric tons—helping to reduce global warming — and generate an additional $16.4 billion in income and $22.1 billion in gross domestic product. Raising the standard for fuel efficiency also would save tens of billions of dollars in gasoline sales. Some of this money would return to the auto industry to pay for new technologies, new jobs and a profit, but $48 billion — the majority of total gasoline savings in 2020 — would go back to consumers.

We cannot take hold of our oil independence and all the benefits that would follow if automakers allow great innovations to sit on the shelf, and if our government’s leaders leave their heads in the sand. We need real leadership from our lawmakers. We need car companies to act patriotically and in the best interests of their customers. We need drivers to make the declaration of oil independence heard by every automaker around the world. If everyone does their part, 20 years from now we will celebrate greater independence, and families will not have to break their piggy banks just to go on vacation. In the meantime, make sure you have enough air in your tires.


David Friedman is the research director of the Clean Vehicles Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. UCS is a nonprofit partnership of scientists and citizens combining scientific analysis, policy development and citizen advocacy to achieve practical environmental solutions.


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